Creative Growth’s special needs clients seize the limelight at fashion show
It’s a hot night in Oakland, and backstage at the Scottish Rite Center the pre-fashion show energy is running as high as the temperature.
As at any runway benefit, hair and makeup artists are applying finishing touches to the models; stylists buzz around, straightening accessories and soothing any nerves the models feel in the heat. A plethora of one-of-a-kind, handmade looks — from fantasy hoop skirts to patchwork denim and asymmetrical crochet dresses — is being prepared for their big moment.
Creative Growth artist Natascha Haehlen, 43, from Moraga has her self-designed blue tulle veil adjusted for the final time while she pulls up her strapless bodice and fluffs her full, aqua skirt around her. She bounces her knees, taps her feet on the floor and sways her shoulders as she warms up. After a final dusting of powder, she puts her glasses back on. When Haehlen walks onto the runway a few minutes later, she takes the opportunity to dance, pumping her arms and bouncing to the audience’s cheers.
“She’s one of the best dancers,” says Jane Timberlake, the board president of Creative Growth. “She just gets better every year.”
Haehlen, who has Down syndrome, smiles wide and twirls her skirt, revealing how intricately it’s appliqued with sequined, floral explosions of color.
Welcome to Beyond Trend, Creative Growth’s runway extravaganza.
Creative Growth, an Oakland nonprofit founded 44 years ago by Florence and Elias Katz as an art center for the developmentally disabled, is now the oldest and largest organization of its kind serving the special-needs community. Its artists include people on the autism spectrum and with Down syndrome, developmental delays and other disabilities.
“Right from the beginning, we always thought about (how) everything Creative Growth does is to blend,” says Creative Growth Director Tom di Maria. “To have our artists, whether they were making visual art or fashion, to be cultural leaders and to understand that their disability is part of what makes their work really interesting, but never to lead with that.”
The Creative Growth studio and gallery in Uptown Oakland regularly hosts exhibitions in addition to its daily studio and gallery hours, and it has become a pillar of the Bay Area arts community. Creative Growth artists like Dan Miller and the late Judith Scott are in the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, helping redefine the term “outsider art,” according to di Maria.
Beyond Trend started in 2010 as a small in-gallery showing of fashion. This year’s show in the grand auditorium of the 1,250-seat Scottish Rite Center, chaired by Paper magazine co-founder Kim Hastreiter and Target Chief Creative Officer Todd Waterbury, was its largest yet.
In a time where diversity on the runways at the major fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris is often discussed but not always practiced, Creative Growth has elevated the representation of the developmentally disabled.
In addition to creating all the fashions featured on the runway, many of the Creative Growth artists, such as Haehlen, also model their work in the show. Their ages, body types and abilities span a wide range. Some have visual impairment, and for the first time, this year’s show included models in wheelchairs.
The organization has a wide fan base, including New York designer Marc Jacobs, who in 2009 created a limited collection of accessories featuring the work of Creative Growth designers, and stores including Barneys New York, Chicago’s Ikram and the now-closed Colette in Paris.
In addition to Beyond Trend’s multi-year presenting sponsorship by Target (and a bottle design collaboration with the retailer), the event is also supported by Levi’s (which donated money as well as all the jeans transformed by the artists). Clothing boutiques Modern Appealing Clothing, Hero Shop, Dish, Erica Tanov, Mercy Vintage, Maribel, Atomic Garden and Esqueleto have exhibited Creative Growth fashions leading up to the event. Many guests wear looks purchased at previous Beyond Trend sales, as does the organization’s staff, blurring the lines among audience, artists and models.
For Paper Magazine editorial director Mickey Boardman, a longtime supporter of Creative Growth who also emceed the runway show, part of what makes great art and fashion is “an ability to be free from conventions and artistic notions. That’s what the clients at Creative Growth have achieved or possess: the ability to create, the freedom of notions of what their art has to be.
“The show has a delightful element of surprise. When you say you’re going to a disabled (designer) fashion show, they don’t know what to expect. These are dream garments that encapsulate it all in one look. I weep each time. I wish every fashion show had that level of emotionality.”
The evening also included a drum circle by Boom Shake, a sale of the runway looks and other Creative Growth art, and a gala dinner with a performance by singer Thao Nguyen of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. Beyond Trend is the organization’s major fundraising event of the year, with tickets ranging from $100 to $225 for the runway event and gala tickets starting at $500. The event sold out and had its highest gross ever, with proceeds benefiting Creative Growth’s programs.
“Who gets 700 people at a fashion show in Oakland with a waiting list?” asks di Maria, noting that Creative Growth’s client-artists are already working on their looks for next year’s show. “It dispels the notion of who our leaders in fashion and art and design can be.”
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