On Thursday, the first official night of New York Fashion Week, while the industry and its disciples kiss-kissed at Calvin Klein and Kim Shui, nine very young, very new designers walked their creations in the fifth annual Project Streetwork Fashion Show.
The event, staged in the sanctuary of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, was the culmination of a four-week mentorship between designers from PVH, the global clothing company that owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and homeless youth from Safe Horizon’s Streetwork Project, which operates two drop-in centers and an overnight shelter.
A bracing alternative to the stoic runways at Skylight Clarkson Sq, the show was also a burst of joy from an increasingly vulnerable population.
“For young adults and teens, there are so many barriers to stable permanent housing,” Liz Roberts, the deputy C.E.O. of Safe Horizon, said in a phone interview. “They don’t have experience living on their own. They don’t have the life skills to navigate a lease and a landlord. They typically have limited work experience. They’re homeless because of a history of abuse and neglect from their families, and they need a lot of support. There’s a need for housing options that are different.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to expand New York’s homeless shelter program, Ms. Roberts added, has improved their odds.
“We’ve been able to move more of our clients into supportive housing than in the past,” she said, referring to housing initiatives for people with mental health and substance abuse issues, and vouchers that offset rent costs at privately owned buildings. “And they’ve added beds to the youth shelter program, which is very welcome. We work with 1,000 young people every year, and on any given night we can only shelter 24.”
The fashion show allowed some of those very people to express their creativity. PVH provided sewing machines, fabric and art supplies, and guided the first-time designers from inspiration boards to execution.
At first the designer-models walked cautiously, with downcast eyes. After a few steps, they looked up, to applause and cheers. And after a few more, they smiled. Blue and white crinoline bounced from shoulders and waists, a lime green hat twinkled with rhinestones, and a hoop skirt lifted a train of binder-clipped Bubble Wrap. At least half the looks were winged.
“I’m kind of a goth, so the first thing I thought was: Angel of Darkness?” said Delonte, 21, wearing a black-and-white outfit of his own design with bicolor wings. “Then, let’s mix it. Half good, half evil.” He kicked his feet to show off his cropped, billowing pants. “And I wanted to form it with a genie/ninja look.”
Delonte’s family, who moved to Connecticut from Jamaica last December, did not welcome his coming out. “They told me I was a disgrace, that I should kill myself,” he said. “And I was like, ‘O.K., I’m going to give you people what you want,’ and I did something that I shouldn’t have.”
After two days in the hospital, he moved to New York, and for the last seven months he has been homeless. Streetwork helped him secure housing at Marsha’s Place, an L.G.B.T. shelter in the Bronx.
“Every day when I wake up, I go straight to Streetwork,” he said. “The food there is amazing. I’m a foodie, trust me. I get to watch TV, play games and be creative. They treat us like they’re a parent. They’re the nicest people on this earth.”
Gimella, 22, landed at Streetwork when she was 18, after fleeing abuse at home. She now lives at True Colors, an affordable L.G.B.T. youth residence that Cyndi Lauper helped found, and is pursuing a medical assistant degree in addition to aiding Streetwork’s women’s sexual health outreach.
“I had a lot of episodes doing my look,” said Gimella, wearing a sheer dress she affixed with heart-shaped panels covered in rhinestones. “I have social anxiety sometimes. But being around good people, it helped me be more comfortable, to be proud of who I am today. Good things like this, they don’t come a lot, so you have to take advantage.”
For Joean Villarin, an assistant director of the program, Project Streetwork is also a positive shared experience. “It’s nice to be in an environment where the focus isn’t on problems, or on fixing something,” she said. “It’s on creating something.”
Daniel Armosilla, a designer and Project Streetwork mentor, said, “When we say, ‘This is a great idea, here are the tools and supplies, let’s band together and help you realize this,’ all that’s happened to them washes away. They feel peace and elation — surprised by what they’re capable of.”
The runway show was followed by a mini-ball featuring members of the Harlem Ballroom community, a vibrant safe haven for queer youth of color chronicled in the documentaries “Paris Is Burning” and “Kiki,” with competitive vogue-off categories and cash prizes donated by the Callen Lorde Health Center.
An M.C., in a floral RompHim, chanted “werk” and “serve” on alternating beats as swaggering contestants with enviable cores strutted the runway, contorting their bodies into I’m-a-little-teapot angles and pivoting as if yanked by invisible string. As the songs intensified, they sprang into handstands and headstands, whipped their hair and windmilled their arms, and, to a roar from the crowd each time, death dropped. (You bend a knee and slam your back to the floor — chiropractor Christmas.)
“The runway saves lives,” the M.C. said, near the end, to cheers.
“Tonight meant a lot to me,” Delonte said. “I feel like a star. If they had something like this I could continue on, that would be so perfect. That would be the best.”
He described his second look for the evening: gray sweatpants and a top he shredded with scissors. “Oh, the top. …” He clasped his hands together. “You’re going to love it.”