The Story Behind A Model With Down Syndrome Making Fashion Week History

Actress Jamie Brewer walks in the Carrie Hammer show at New York Fashion Week. CREDIT: TANYA MALOTT
Actress Jamie Brewer walks in the Carrie Hammer show at New York Fashion Week. CREDIT: TANYA MALOTT

Not to disappoint the always-attention-starved Kanye West, but he is not the only designer out of New York Fashion Week making headlines this morning. Designer Carrie Hammer made NYFW history by casting actress Jamie Brewer (of American Horror Story fame) in her show. Brewer became the first model with Down Syndrome to walk in a show at Fashion Week, and Hammer continued her track record of casting models who don’t check all the usual boxes: leggy, lithe, teenage, blonde.

Brewer isn’t Hammer’s first first: when Hammer debuted at NYFW a year ago, she cast Danielle Sheypuk, a friend and client who became the first model in a wheelchair on a Fashion Week runway. Hammer’s casting method led to an official campaign, “Role Models Not Runway Models,” and this year all 25 women who walked the Carrie Hammer show were chosen due to their professional accomplishments, including the co-founder and global ambassador of the Malala Fund and the founder and executive director of Black Girls CODE.

I spoke with Carrie Hammer marketing director Bruna Petrillo about the Role Models Not Runway Models campaign, changing beauty ideals, and why the standards set by the fashion industry matter to women everywhere.

What’s the origin story of Role Models Not Runway Models? When did diversification in casting become important to Carrie?

Last February, in 2014, was Carrie’s first show at NYFW. She was going through the whole planning phase of the entire show, and when it came down to casting models, she was like, “There’s nothing I hate more than casting models. They’re all 12-to-15-year-old girls, doing homework backstage, and they have to be so thin, there’s such high standards for them.” And she was not interested in that. So she decided, “I’m going to cast role models, not runway models.” And the sky just opened up.

She wanted to represent her brand, because her customers are role models. They’re these high-powered women. And she called dup her clients and asked if they wanted to walk in a fashion show. And of course, if someone asks you to walk in NYFW, you’re not going to turn it down. So she cast her first show with all clients. Danielle Sheypuk, one of her clients and a good friend, she’s a sex therapist, and she happened to be in a wheelchair. And she became the first ever model in a wheelchair in NYFW. Bustle picked up the story and it went viral. Carrie did this whole thing. It was very revolutionary.

I hear a lot of complaints — from the designer/model side and the consumer side — about how so many models in fashion week are underage, too skinny and all white. If everyone feels that way, why hasn’t it changed? Why is this still the industry standard?

That’s a good question. Because I think, now, we are seeing a change. If you saw Diane von Furstenberg’s letter from the CFDA, it was: make sure the models are healthy, get diversity on the runway. I think it’s slowly changing. But there’s still this standard women have to fit. Designers want to show off the clothes, and models represent a hanger. It’s not the person themselves; it’s the way the clothing will fit off them, and if they’re a size zero, the clothing will hang perfectly. For Carrie, she’s worked at shows where the girls are super-young. That turned her off to it. I just know she’s always said she hates casting, the models are too young, too skinny. When you use role models, it eliminates all of that. Everyone is healthy and beautiful.

Creatures of the Wind Fall 2015 collection is modeled during Fashion Week on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Creatures of the Wind Fall 2015 collection is modeled during Fashion Week on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

This notion that designers have that models who don’t fit a certain mold will be a distraction from the clothes, is that a concern of Carrie’s at all? Because I would think she wants the attention to be on her work, too.

I don’t think it’s an issue, I think she enjoys that part of it. She’ll joke around when she’s giving the speeches, “no one focuses on my dresses, they pay attention to you.” But it doesn’t take away the focus of the line because they’re all designed to the role model. Carrie’s dresses are all custom, so it goes to fit the woman. You’re not casting models to fit into the clothes, you’re making the clothes fit the models.

There is this perception of modeling as something that’s very easy to do: be gorgeous, walk in a straight line, have your picture taken. And, of course, models refute that claim and insist their work requires skill, that it’s actually quite difficult. Does the caliber of a show go down because the models aren’t “real” models, and therefore don’t possess that skill set? Is there less professionalism in a show where the models aren’t professionals?

I hear what you’re saying. For our show, we just let the role models do whatever they want on the runway, and it’s fun. You don’t see a lot of runway shows that let models have fun. They’re straight-faced and [look] bored. We want them to smile and have their personality shine through. It doesn’t lose professionalism; it makes it more heartfelt. It gets the guests excited and lively.

Modeling, in general, is very difficult. Most of the girls are traveling from overseas, they move to New York without their family, they live in an apartment with ten other girls that they don’t know, they don’t speak English, they go to castings all the time and don’t get paid until they land jobs. And this year especially, all the top models have family ties in the industry –- like Kylie Jenner, Gigi Hadid -– and it’s easier for them to walk the runway. All the other girls moving away from their home countries and trying to model [have a harder time]. And the issue [of famous models being a distraction] is changing. Everyone wants press, everyone wants to be the story. And with social media, too, you’re bound to get press if someone famous walks in your show.

Do you think Carrie’s show gets all this press because of the Role Models campaign? Would there be this much coverage without that element?

I think it does, and it brings people from a bunch of different industries into the show. These are women that people can look up to in every aspect. There are people who are artists, co-founders of companies, one woman is a chief data scientist. People can get inspired not only by Carrie but by the role models walking the show. And then of course, you want to wear the clothes. You think: “She’s a successful businesswoman, she’s wearing Carrie Hammer on the runway, I want to wear a Carrie Hammer.”

How did Jamie Brewer, the American Horror Story actress, wind up walking in yesterday’s show? In doing so, she became the first model with Down Syndrome to walk a Fashion Week runway.

When Carrie cast Danielle in the first show, it was accidental. It was just a friend she asked. She wears Louboutins, she’s very fashionable, she owned a lot of Carrie’s dresses already. And the story broke that she was the first-ever woman in a wheelchair in fashion week, [but] it was an accident. After the first show, Carrie got a lot of responses about how that gave a role model to people in wheelchairs. It gives them hope that they can do whatever they want. She got an email from Karen Crespo, who reached out to Carrie thanking her and saying “Your show is inspiring.” Karen lost all four of her limbs during a struggle with bacterial meningitis. She was saying, “I haven’t felt beautiful in a while and this has been inspiring to me.” And that really inspired Carrie. Karen said she had ordered $100,000 prosthetic arm and it was stolen from her front doorstep.

So Carrie found out about this and invited Karen to her second show, in September 2014, and she also had her new arms made. She got a lot of press: this was someone different, a quadruple amputee, and she became a role model for a whole different group of people. So this woman, Katie Driscoll, emailed Carrie and said, “My daughter is five years old and she has Down Syndrome. I’d love if you could put someone on the runway so my daughter has a role model.” And Katie suggested Jamie Brewer. Katie put Carrie in touch with Jamie, and her mom and manager, and Jamie agreed to walk in the runway. And that was huge for people with Down Syndrome. For us, Jamie was the most famous role model we’ve ever had, who just happens to have Down Syndrome.

Carrie Hammer. CREDIT: Tanya Malott
Carrie Hammer. CREDIT: Tanya Malott

Why do you think it’s important for runway models to also be role models? Is there the argument to be made that there are worthier role models in other professions: in science and technology, in academia, in the arts? Would the better goal be for women to stop looking up to models altogether?

I think that’s true, but it’s not anything that’s going anywhere anytime soon. Women will always look up to women who are beautiful and try to be like them. The goal isn’t to get people to look away from beauty; it’s to change what beauty is defined as. The average model is a size zero, really tall, perfect skin, blonde hair. Even if people tried as hard as they could, if they go through all these processes to reach this beauty ideal, it’s just unattainable for 90 percent of American women. The average American woman is a size 14. It’s crazy for her to aspire to be a size zero. Women want to feel sexy and beautiful. People should aspire to be smart and look up to women in [other] roles, but it’s also like, [seeing a different kind of woman in a fashion show, you think]: she’s beautiful and I look like her and I can be beautiful. We want to moving away from those beauty standards and change the beauty ideal.

How is the runway show structured so people in the audience know the achievements of these women? Is there information anywhere about why these role models were chosen?

This year we did that. When each role model walked out, we had on one side of the backdrop, her name and title, and on the other side it was their company’s logo. So everyone knew when they walked out, who they were and what company they worked for. You could see their accomplishments, which I don’t think Carrie has done in the past. The runway is one dress per woman; this time we had 25 dresses. The entire runway is theirs. It’s not like she goes halfway and then another woman comes out. There’s no speech during the show or anything. Music plays in the background. So it’s traditional in that way.

How do you measure the success of this initiative? Is it higher sales, traffic on your website, press?

It’s mostly the press. The company is only three years old, so we still need to get that Carrie Hammer name out there. The reason for doing fashion shows is getting press. And the role models have their dresses designed for them, as opposed to other fashion shows where the model has to give it back, the role models can buy their dresses, if they want.

Where do you go from here? What’s next?

What we might do for future shows is take nominations for role models for the show. It’s not just about us and who we see as role models; it’s about the audience. The first show was Carrie’s friends. This show is a lot of women she found and met at events. And Jamie was, of course, a nomination. But we might go towards nominating. It makes the audience feel more involved, and we also get a greater variety of women. This one was very business-oriented. So it would be great to get women from all industries.

Would you ever cast a typical runway model in a Carrie Hammer show?

We base it off their accomplishments, and there are models out there who I think are awesome. Coco Rocha is a great model and she’s always been an advocate for women, [raising awareness about] eating disorders. She’s a traditional runway model who is trying to change the face of beauty. We would consider it. We’re not runway-model-haters. We just would rather focus on a woman’s accomplishments, instead of just their natural beauty.