Feature Stories

In Disabilities Fashion Show, A New Vision of Inclusion

A model poses for a photo at the end of the runway at the Yesod JCC in St. Petersburg. She was a participant in a fashion show for people with disabilities organized by Juliana Belova, a graduate of Lehava, JDC's institute for young leaders in Russia.

Dressed in shimmering gowns and sparkling jewelry, the models proceeded down the runway to thumping beats and rapturous applause.

But there was something slightly different about this fashion show: Half of the models had special needs, and their high-fashion designs were specially modified for their disabilities.

For Juliana Belova — a graduate of Lehava, JDC’s pioneering young leadership institute in St. Petersburg, Russia — the fashion show wasn’t just a chance to explore her couture dreams. It was a unique opportunity to make the world broader and brighter for her countrymen with special needs and to redefine what she sees as negative stereotypes about Russia’s attitude toward philanthropy.

“Charity and helping others is not only about giving but about changing cultural stereotypes. It’s not a secret that philanthropy is not spread throughout the former Soviet Union,” Belova said. “Until very recently it was not even in our culture at all. And what can make charity fashionable better than the fashion itself?”

Belova, a fashion fan but not a designer herself, began her project with a workshop featuring professionals from the Albrecht Research Institute, an organization that specializes in creating clothes for people with disabilities. At the workshop, young designers learned how to construct modified outfits, as well as learned techniques and special fabrics that could aid their designs.

After the workshop, each designer met with their models and talked to them about their needs and preferences. Then he/she created unique looks — one for a model with special needs and one for a professional model.

The special needs models were participants of the inclusion programs run by the Adain Lo Family Center, a local grassroots Jewish organization in St. Petersburg housed at Yesod, the city’s JDC-supported Jewish community center. The fashion show was also held there.

The clothes designed for the project were donated to the models, and many of the designers said their favorite part of the project was the smiles on the faces of their special-needs clients.  

“When I heard about this project I realized it was an opportunity to change the idea of fashion, to give it new depth,” said Yulia Ashurova, one of the designers who participated. “My garments were bridal dresses because I believe love makes the world go round. I wanted to show my models they are loved.”

Belova said the lessons she learned at Lehava helped her develop the idea for the fashion show.

The leadership institute is operated by JDC in conjunction with PresenTense and is an entrepreneurship model that trains committed individuals to create high-impact projects fostering innovation in the Jewish community.

“Lehava shows young Jewish people how they can make our local community and the whole world better,” she said. “Throughout the year, young Jewish leaders are shown how to overcome difficulties and make their work meaningful.”

But JDC’s impact on Russia extends beyond just Lehava, Belova said.

“The training was aimed to show that together we can make things better, and that working alone is less productive than when we combine our collective intelligence and skills,” she said. “Hasn’t that been the philosophy of the Jewish community since medieval times? JDC brings to our young community the treasured Jewish values we somehow lost in the 20th century.”

Lehava is generously supported by The Jewish Federation of Cleveland and The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.

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