It’s Fashion Week, and of course, the event is all about trendiness and fierceness and modernizing Richmond’s fashion market, but Fashion Week is also about helping the community. Catwalk for Kids is a national charity based around helping local children’s hospitals and they’ve signed on to do a show in Richmond on April 8th.
It’s RVA Fashion Week (April 2nd – 10th), and of course, the event is all about trendiness and fierceness and modernizing Richmond’s fashion market, but Fashion Week is also about helping the community. Catwalk for Kids is a national charity based around helping local children’s hospitals. They signed on to do a show with RFW on April 8th.
Catwalk for Kids got started 14 years ago when founder, Mary Norton, took the scraps from her handbag business in Charleston, then called Moo Roo, to a local children’s hospital so that patients could design their own bags. Norton’s handbag business was just getting off the ground in those days, so even though there wasn’t any extra money to donate Moo Roo still found ways to give back.
Norton started off selling her hand-made designs in local boutiques, but by 2006 with help from some high-end investors Norton made a name for herself as “the red carpet accessory expert” with customers like Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, Uma Thurman, and Jennifer Lopez. It was at this high point in her career that Norton wanted to do a show for Charleston Fashion Week, but her investors weren’t so keen on the idea. She managed to convince them by turning it into a charity event. She used her contacts in the fashion industry to muster up a show that was fashion first, charity second.
Norton pulled in Michael Fink, fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue (another major partner with RFW), to supply the clothing to pair with her evening bags. After showcasing her own designs, Norton auctioned off the handbags that were put together by the patients at the Medical University South Carolina Children’s Hospital. The first year, she asked her friend Wayne Newton, Mr. Las Vegas himself, to be the entertainer for the evening, but the next year, she attracted more celebrities, like Edwin McCain and Darius Rucker. “Really I never intended for it to be as big as it was,” Norton admits, “but it ended up being a really big deal. We raised net $75,000 dollars the first year. And it was amazing.”
After two successful years at Charleston Fashion Week, Catwalk for Kids almost fizzled away. In July of last year, Norton’s investors pulled the rug out from under her and she lost her multi-million-dollar business. “It was terrible…I lost everything in two weeks that I had built over 13 years,” Norton laments. “Honestly, doing Catwalk for Kids was the last of things on my mind.”
But something unexpected happened.
In 2010, Norton was timing a swim meet for one of her two young daughters, and a little girl came up to her and asked, “Mrs. Norton, do you remember me?” Norton shook her head. “You worked with me five years ago at the Children’s Hospital when I had cancer. Look at me now!” This little girl expressed dreams of becoming a handbag designer herself, and participating in Catwalk for Kids in upcoming years to help sick children, now that she was well and out of the hospital.
“I just fell apart,” Norton says. “I just remember that moment thinking…I may have lost my business, and my livelihood and all those things, but the impact I’ve made in helping children’s lives hasn’t gone away.”
Putting all her energies into Catwalk for Kids turned out to be just the kick Norton needed to get her feet off the ground again. Catwalk for Kids raised $275,000 dollars last year, 100% of which went to the local children’s hospital in Charleston. At the end of the night, local business owner Gene Reed (CEO of Gene Reed Enterprises, an automotive group based out of Charleston) approached Norton and pledged his time and money to helping turn Catwalk for Kids into a national program. “At such a rough time for me, just to hear somebody say ‘I believe in you,’ when I wasn’t really sure I believed in myself, it was just what I needed.”
Mr. Reed can’t take credit for putting Norton in touch with RVA Fashion Week, however. It was actually an ex-staff member who recommended that Norton get in touch with Jimmy Budd, one of the main directors of RFW. Initially, New York Fashion Week was going to be the first non-Charleston-based event. “Not many people would premiere their national program with Richmond, but there were so many great people.” In addition to Jimmy Budd, co-founder of Nightlife Promos, Inc., Norton praises Mitchell Warnecke, Budd’s partner at Nightlife Promos, Susan Winiecki, Editor-in-Chief at Richmond Magazine, and the local Mercedes dealership, of all things – “They just jumped in and said, ‘What can we do to help?’ I was so shocked…It was really random,” Norton says.
The Catwalk for Kids event at RVA Fashion Week will include a gourmet luncheon by Mosaic catering, followed by a fashion show by Tibi, New York. After the show, there will be an auction of handbags made by celebrities like Kristin Stewart, Carrie Underwood, Stephen Colbert, Gabrielle Union and Amanda Peet. Most of the handbags come with packages, for instance, Carrie Underwood donated a guitar which will be up for auction with her handbag, and Stephen Colbert contributed an all-expense paid trip to New York that includes Broadway tickets as well as tickets to his show.
Saks Fifth Avenue is another one of Catwalk for Kids’ biggest sponsors. Catwalk hopes to have them a permanent partner for future shows. “Having a national tastemaker and institution like Saks Fifth Avenue as a partner for Catwalk for Kids has been absolutely tremendous,” says Catwalk’s PR Director, Caroline Gibson, “Saks is a leader in the fashion industry, and their tender heart and dedication towards children has been encouraging not only to the Catwalk for Kids team, but to the hundreds of children that will benefit from this fundraiser.”
Norton and Tibi’s founder, Amy Smilovic, also plan to sit down with patients at the Richmond Children’s Hospital and design bags that will be auctioned off. “No child is turned down,” Norton says. Any patient desiring to make a handbag will get to do so. Once the auction is over, there will be a mini-concert from an entertainer that is TBD, as well as stories by the children at the hospital, some of whom will be present at the event.
Tickets for Catwalk for Kids are a cool $125 dollars. As RVA Fashion Week grows, so does its capacity for serving the community; the $90,000 dollars Catwalk for Kids hopes to raise for the Richmond’s Children’s Hospital is only the beginning.