New York - French designer Myriam Chalek, creative director of the brand American Wardrobe, didn't want to put on just another show at New York Fashion Week, so she gathered a small group of sexual misconduct survivors, sent them down her runway and let them share their stories Friday.
The eight women first walked in her designs, then stood at the end of the runway in front of a hotel ballroom full of seated guests and a platform of photographers and TV crews. They were handcuffed to male models wearing pig heads, most providing their first names only to tell of their horrors, some buried deep for years until the #MeToo movement bolstered them to go public.
One, Melissa, a model and actress from Guyana, said she was sexually abused at 11 by a family friend.
"For a while I actually thought that it went away," she said. That was until recently, when she was offered an acting gig but the director tried to coerce her into a relationship. She resisted. She said she didn't get the gig but emerged stronger than ever.
Susan, a survivor of sexual violence, said her first brush was in college when a toxic boyfriend snapped naked photos as she slept and attempted to blackmail her.
"But I slowly started to believe in myself. I feel like if any girl is in the position that I was, just believe in yourself. Don't believe that you're the issue."
Most of Chalek's runway walkers were not professional models. They included internet safety educator Alicia Kozakiewicz, who said she was abducted in 2002 at age 13 by an internet predator, taken to another state and held captive, chained by the neck. She said her abductor livestreamed her "torture" and she thought she was going to die, until the FBI found her and rescued her.
"I was given a second chance at life, but the nightmare didn't end there. I suffered from PTSD, nightmares, flashbacks as so many survivors do," Kozakiewicz said. "My voice became silenced, but not for long. At the age of 14 I began sharing my story. ... Here I stand today, on a New York Fashion Week runway, no less, and I declare that I am no longer just a victim."
She said the #MeToo movement is "not about man hating. It is not about fighting violence with violence. It is, however, empowering women and girls to live in a world free of fear."
Model and poet Cheyenne Jacobs said she is a survivor of sexual misconduct, rape and sexual assault - the first time in high school when she was 15 and a male classmate exposed himself, shoved her against a wall and forced her to touch his genitalia.
"When I was in college I was sexually assaulted, raped, by an athlete on campus," she told the crowd, but she kept her secret, thinking as a woman of colour "nobody would surely help me."
As a college senior, a date attempted to rape her. When she confronted him, Jacobs said, he responded: "Well, you shouldn't have led me on."
Chalek said in a pre-show interview that she does not have a #MeToo moment of her own but wanted to use the fashion week platform to raise awareness and help "empower more women and more girls out there" to speak up.
"That's my obligation," she said.
She dressed her special models both as "strong warriors" in leather and gladiator looks but also in light, sheer outfits that included a winged butterfly paired with a tiara because the combination is "just like a woman," Chalek explained.
"You know, like, we're very delicate and fragile, but at the same time we can be beasts."