A chance to shine

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A chance to shine

This was no glitzy exhibition featuring flashy, gaunt, overpaid models wearing flamboyant top-drawer design wear and striding down catwalks posing, posing, posing.

No, the stars of this fashion show held Thursday in a hall in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, were people whose lives are a continual struggle with physical and mental disabilities.

Thus, these models didn't make swift and sleek turns in their wheelchairs, and were unable to strike different poses.

Some were deaf or mute, but like most fashion shows, these models didn't need to say anything. Their very appearances did all the talking.

Even the clothing wasn't over-extravagant. In fact, most attire was quite modest. The wedding gowns, cocktail dresses and even the hanbok, or traditional attire, was simple yet appealing.

The show, titled "Santa's Gift," was set up by Fashion Lab for Persons with Disabilities in Korea, a private, nonprofit organization that creates clothing for the disabled. The lab was launched in 1997 and had its first fashion show a year ago.

The lab's director, Kim Sung-yun, says his staff of designers focuses on practical use, though fashionable factors are always considered.

Mr. Kim says it is difficult and uncomfortable for most disabled people to wear store-bought clothes. His staff tries to change shirts or pants so the physically challenged won't have to wrestle with an item when using the bathroom or simply getting dressed.

But convenience can often neglect style and fashion. "Just because these people are physically challenged doesn't mean their clothes shouldn't be sumptuous," says Mr. Kim. "Usually there is a limit to what handicapped people wear. Baggy shirts, sports pants and the like. They wear clothing that is just comfortable. But doing so can often bring down their spirits. Like everyone else, they need a lift in life."

And also like everyone else, the disabled, Mr. Kim's says, want to look attractive and appealing.

The show was named "Santa's Gift" because the Fashion Lab wanted participants to feel happy. Mr. Kim asks, "How often does the average person become the star of a fashion show?"

This was not an easy show to put together. In most cases, the models had to endure at least five strenuous rehearsal sessions at a hall of Milal School, an education facility for the disabled, in southeastern Seoul. The rehearsals often lasted six or seven hours each.

Even in the bitter cold, the models turned out for rehearsals regardless of the distance. Several of the models traveled far for the show, some from Busan and Gwangju.

"It was really tiring physically and mentally, but it was really fun," says Kim Soo-jung, a participant. Ms. Kim, 38, suffers from a birth defect that has hindered her growth. She stands about the height of a normal adult's knee.

"At first I was doubtful I had made the right choice," says Ms. Kim. "I was worried that I would screw it up in some way, but when I was on the stage there was a feeling that I can't describe."

When she started to walk, she could barely see the catwalk in the darkened hall. The physical pain and fatigue during rehearsals washed away when the show started and she took her first steps.

"There is a joy knowing that what I have done not many are privileged to do," said Ms. Kim. "How often do you get to walk down a catwalk?"

Ms. Kim says if the show were to take place in France or any other part of the world, including the dark side of the moon, she would take part in displaying to others how much dignity disabled people have.

"I used to hang about in my room," says Ms. Kim. "I really hated the way people stared at me when I went outdoors. It wasn't a pleasant feeling, but then I started to feel that I needed to show society that handicapped people are capable of doing anything they put their minds to."

The 35 models who participated in the show did so for free, but money was not an issue for them. "I would rather not walk up on a stage if I were to be paid," says Ms. Kim. "I did this because I wanted to and I liked it."

In the show, Ms. Kim wore a red satin winter cape, though what she really had her heart set on was the wedding dress. "Every girl dreams of wearing a wedding gown. I hope in the next fashion show I get to wear one."

Another dream of hers is to be an actress or a singer. "Who says we can't be an entertainment celebrity?"

Taking a breather in their wheelchairs after the show were Kwon Min-jee, 31, and Han Suk-jun, 21.

Ms. Kwon was paralyzed from the waist down 10 years ago following a car accident. Ms. Kwon, who is as attractive as many magazine models, says she participated because she wanted to show others that people like her, those confined to wheelchairs for the rest of their lives, can wear pretty dresses and, well, looked pretty.

Han Suk-joon suffers from infantile paralysis, which makes it difficult for him to control his body. He says he did the show out of sheer pleasure, and for a sense of self-assurance. "It's difficult to go down the catwalk while rolling a wheelchair with your feet," says Mr. Han. "But it's worth it because it's fun and I like the challenge." Mr. Han's dream is to become a reporter and write about other disabled people.

Before the show began, the fashion coordinator of Fashion Lab tried to get a group of children to rehearse their walks. The children all suffer from various mental disorders. During rehearsals, they would often be distracted by simple objects such as a camera or even a piano.

The coordinator guided them by pulling their arms and urging them to walk in a forward line. This was difficult, for after only a few steps the group would disperse in every direction.

The children and other models were selected from thorough auditions. Park Kyung-sun, a Fashion Lab staffer, says that at the audition the judges looked for only one thing in a child model: "Someone who would not make any trouble."

Mr. Park smiles and says it is not unusual for children to walk on the stage and start mayhem. "The audience at first might be startled but soon they'll smile. These children are as innocent as babes."

Lee Jong-ju, 43, the mother of one young model, says the show filled her with pride. "My boy [Han Jee-shik, 11] is autistic, which makes it difficult for him to mix with other people. He avoids being around people. I just wanted to teach him to be proud of himself because anyone who gets on this stage is a star."


She offers a lifetime of design experience

Until she was 2 years old, her family frequently searched for her as she toddled about the neighborhood on short sturdy legs. Yoon Jung-Eui, 39, says that on one of those jaunts she found herself staring at a mannequin in a tailor shop window in her hometown of Busan.

"I've probably been interested in fashion design ever since," says Ms. Yoon.

But soon her walking became curtailed. At the age of 3, Ms. Yoon was stricken with polio, which paralyzed her and put her on crutches for life.

Never one to let anything stop her, Ms. Yoon designed many of the outfits in the "Santa's Gift" fashion show.

She majored in fashion design in college. "For the first three years of college I was deeply fascinated by fashion design," she recalls. But in her fourth year, with a few months left before graduation, she was struck by the callousness of society.

"When I talked to those who graduated a year or two ahead of me they would often tell me stories of their lives at work. In the first year they would go out and do market research and buy materials for the designers. I could do that, too, but companies wouldn't hire me because of my physical situation. I decided to give up my dreams."

She worked for a while as an English tutor and then went to graduate school to study industrial design. As the years went by, however, she missed the fashion world more and more. Often her friends from college would recommend that she try designing clothing for disabled people. But she dismissed the idea because there was no profit in it.

She was surfing on the Internet one afternoon and by accident visited Fashion Lab's Web site -- www.happychange.net. That was just three months ago.

"Clothes for the disabled have to be fashionable but also practical," she says. "Believe me, I know what I am talking about." -- Lee Ho-jeong

by Lee Ho-jeong

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