Italian designers steer clear of fashion models in wheelchairs

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The Independent Online

Italy's first haute couture fashion show for the disabled yesterday was intended to show up the industry for excluding all but the perfectly formed, but many of the top designers refused to participate.

Italy's first haute couture fashion show for the disabled yesterday was intended to show up the industry for excluding all but the perfectly formed, but many of the top designers refused to participate.

Italian models clad in extravagant creations graced the catwalk at a parade in Rome, but rather than strutting along on vertiginous high heels, they glided smoothly past in wheelchairs. The show took place a few hours before the climax of the haute couture week, a televised gala event in which top models including Cindy Crawford teetered down the Spanish Steps. The contrast could not have been more obvious.

The initiative, entitled: "There's fashion ... and fashion", received an ambivalent response from the gurus. Many did not respond to the request to whip up an extravaganza of clothes that could be worn by women on wheels.

Ileana Argentin, a Rome city councillor and one of the organisers, said: "Valentino did not even reply, Gai Mattiolo turned us down in an offensive manner and Rocco Barocco said he did not feel it was appropriate." Dynamic Air, which she works for, seeks to knock down architectural and cultural barriers to the disabled. The 16 wheelchair-bound models ranged in age from 18 to 54 and included fashion professionals, sporting champions, businesswomen and mothers. Some were paraplegics, others suffered from muscular dystrophy or had lost the use of their legs. Raffaella Fanelli, 27, was left paralysed after falling from a horse, and twice won the gold medal at the world disabled swimming championships.

The 40 gowns on display were designed by Renato Balestra, Egon Furstenberg, Gattinoni, Lancetti, by students at Rome's fashion design schools and a designer for the disabled, Giacomo Alvino.

Ms Argentin, aged 37, who appeared in a red and black creation by Gattinoni, said: "We want people to know that we are not asexual beings. We want to look beautiful, we want to seduce. The image of disabled people in tracksuits or at best jeans must change.

"Disabled people don't just need assistance, they need equal rights, and that means being able to go into a shop and come out with the right dress," she added, noting that 200,000 Italian women were in effect excluded from the fashion circuit because of their disabilities.

It was not just the fashion world that had reservations about the initiative. Mariella Scoca, an MP, demanded that the show be stopped because she claimed it "gravely offended the sense of respect that the community shares towards people for whom life has reserved such a difficult path".

* A new film museum has opened in Italy, with a collection ranging from a pair of Marilyn Monroe's shoes and Federico Fellini's hat and scarf to an original screenplay for Citizen Kane and a bicycle from ET.

The museum in Turin, once the capital of the Italian film industry, builds on a collection started in the 1940s. Turin was Italy's film centre until the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini built the national film studio, Cinecitta, in Rome in 1937.

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