Too often, when we talk about people with special needs, we tend to focus on the second part. We ask ourselves – what do they need and how can we provide it for them?

Then there are those who focus on the first part of the phrase, and realise that people with special needs, like anyone else, are special too. They have dreams, aspirations, and talents just waiting to be discovered and honed.

That’s what Eileen Yap, 45, wanted to help them achieve when she started Fashion for a Social Cause at her social enterprise Singapore Fashion Runway (SFR).

She tells The Pride: “In 2015, (when she founded SFR) we were not directly targeting (people with special needs). It was just a place where different people who love to design can come and create things together. Then in 2016, families of chronically ill children, as well as cancer patients and survivors, started noticing what we do. They felt that it was interesting and they could put their skills and talents to good use,” Eileen tells The Pride.

“I think what also got them excited was that their work would be put into a runway show.”

Slowly led to something more meaningful

From left: Sijun and Kayne. Image source: Eileen Yap

This was the start to Eileen’s journey to make people with special needs SFR’s focal point.

Says the trainer at Mountbatten Vocational School for those with special needs: “In 2017, once we got more opportunities to work with people with special needs, I felt that our purpose should be Fashion for a Social Cause. We wanted to differentiate ourselves (from other labels and runway shows) as an inclusive runway that also serves people with special needs. This gives them a chance (to showcase their talents) as well.”

She also wanted to break away from the fashion industry’s traditional stereotypes of beauty and instead embrace everyone’s differences.

Photos from SFR’s Next Top Inclusive Model Hunt 2020 Finals. From left: Sijun and Gary. Image source: Eileen Yap

Eileen explains: “Fashion has always been a very glamorous and ‘perfect’ kind of industry. If you look at magazines and runway shows, they always show the unrealistic side and present a ‘perfect’ person. But if you actually look, you can see that we’re all different. Different heights, different sizes…”

Eileen was also able to implement skills she honed from her previous occupations into SFR.

She shares: “I was a lecturer in ITE for 10 years so that’s where I found my love for teaching. I also wanted to experience entrepreneurship because that was what I was teaching. I asked myself that if I never try entrepreneurship, how can I be an entrepreneurship lecturer?”

That prompted Eileen to start Noël Caleb, her own fashion label that designs and sells women’s clothes. She ran that from 2011 to 2014 before starting SFR.

Eileen shares: “Back then, I used to meet people every week at whatever space we could borrow. In 2018, I thought that maybe we should have a fixed space so I started a centre at Marina South Pier MRT station for weekly meetings.

From there, SFR started to expand.

Eileen says: “It became clearer that we could include anyone who wanted to contribute. So we have a sewing department who meets up regularly. People who attended our runway shows started asking where they could buy the items, so we started a retail department in 2019. Then we got invited to events and popups, on top of our own shows. That’s when we started to turn into a social enterprise.”

Everyone plays an important role

Image source: Eileen Yap

Eileen strives to make all aspects of SFR inclusive to allow each individual to play to their strengths and interests – it’s not just about modelling designs on the catwalk!

She says: “For those strong in retail, we let them work shifts at the retail store (at People’s Park). For others stronger in design, we get them to create something according to the theme of an upcoming show. Those interested in entrepreneurship get the chance to come up with their own design series and be responsible for stocks and sales. We even get them involved in product delivery, if that’s their interest. This way, they become more independent and responsible rather than just attending a centre without any goal.”

Says Eileen: “We also encourage them to bring their family members to the meetings so we get to know their caregivers and relatives and from there we can learn from one another.”

SFR has 10 employees and a team of 150 volunteers made up of special-needs caregivers and cancer survivors as well as other Singaporeans who just want to contribute.

Lessons at SFR are held every Saturday.

Image source: Eileen Yap

Eileen uses the lessons not just to hone their talents and skills, but also to identify their strengths and preferences. This helps her to assign roles more effectively.

“There is a standard syllabus that we teach them. They will be nurtured according to creative arts, performing arts or entrepreneurship. After we rotate them on different skills, we can see which areas they are stronger in and then we will know which department suits them. We also try to find out what they really like to do after spending some time with them and expose them to it. By doing this, we let them choose their path in the fashion industry.” Eileen says.

“Imagine in one week, I could meet 60 people and all 60 of them have different interests. When we put all of them together, they can create a beautiful collection or make a show happen.”

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Each class has 20 students and SFR currently works with a total of 80 people with special needs. They will potentially be enrolling 40 more students in the future.

Each session in the 52-session year-long course costs $20.

When there are no lessons, SFR focuses more on background work internally and also works with other organisations such as Mountbatten Vocational School.

Eileen shares: “We also go to special-needs schools on weekdays so that’s when we bring our programmes out of the centre. We also do more planning work because different partners may come and ask us to design a certain collection for them. And we run our retail store from Monday to Saturday as well.”

SFR has greatly helped people with special needs to improve themselves by refining their talents and upgrading their hard and soft skills.

“What I like about SFR is that I get to experience learning opportunities, from fashion, retail, rehearsals and also sewing. How SFR has changed me is that I improved a lot on my emotions. I was shy in talking to people in the past, but now I am more brave in talking to people and more sociable.” says Jonas, a SFR youth.

Along with that, SFR has also allowed their volunteers to discover more about themselves and make a positive difference in society.

“SFR has created more awareness for an inclusive society in Singapore. It brings out more empathy and understanding for others, and allows us to appreciate life more. It also allows us an opportunity to lead and serve in the community.” says Jean, a SFR coach and volunteer.

“I like the fact that we are a big family where we accept and embrace the differences, celebrate all successes and appreciate the achievements of all.”

Covid didn’t stop them and even helped them achieve more

Image source: Eileen Yap

While Covid changed the way SFR carried out its lessons and events, it actually brought about many positive effects as well as revelations for Eileen.

She beams: “For the whole year we had Zoom classes. We could invite all of them to join because we don’t have physical limitations on Zoom. The participants can sit through six hours of lessons in a day. We had design classes, dance classes and modeling classes over Zoom. It’s amazing to see the interest level and the passion.”

They were also able to adapt to Covid and come up with ways to sustain themselves over the trying times.

Eileen shares: “We taught the crafters to sew masks and the designers to design masks to keep them occupied during the off-period. Other than that, the sessions went on as per normal and we had a virtual runway show that we recorded in the studio. We could even go to a food court and teach them how to serve meals and things like that. So during Covid we were very busy.”

SFR re-opened its centre and resumed normal in-person meetings in October last year.

Prejudice still there, but progress being made

Image source: Eileen Yap

Eileen feels that the stigma surrounding people with special needs is still prevalent in society.

She says: “Many think that since people with special needs have a certain disability, they are defined by it. But for us, people with special needs also have special talents. I think for non-special needs people, their talents tend to be spread across a wide range of interests. But when we discover what a person with special needs is talented in, it allows them to shine in that specific area.”

Eileen also added that the stigma exists because many don’t know how to understand people with special needs. “Once you get to know them, they’re just like anybody. They desire to be respected rather than pitied.” she says.

Outfits from SFR’s Adaptive and Sustainable Fashion Collection. From left: Xiuzhen and Vuitton. Image source: Eileen Yap

Eileen says: “I think some people still don’t know how to start being inclusive of people with special needs. But our shows are a good opportunity to interact with our youths and they can also come to our store.”

Thankfully, Eileen is seeing more improvement in social acceptance of those with special needs.

She elaborates: “We have students and working adults who volunteer with us and they realise that special-needs people actually cope better in some situations because some of them have better concentration or they can do certain things very well.”

Moving forward

Xiuzhen is also one of SFR’s latest management trainees. Image source: Eileen Yap

Now, in Phase 3, SFR is busy preparing for upcoming runway shows.

Says Eileen: “We launch our first show of the year on Feb 20. The theme is Chinese New Year so right now we are designing lots of CNY-related things such as masks and clothes. There are actually five shows that we are trying to turn around in a day because of the restrictions. Attendees can also buy the merchandise directly.”

“After that, you will see us on the virtual show for Chingay. We designed Chingay-inspired masks and merchandise so people can look out for that.”

Image source: Eileen Yap

SFR also aims to reach out to people with disabilities this year by refashioning the way they wear their clothes.

Eileen says: “Some of them are wheelchair-bound for example, so it’s not very convenient to dress themselves. so we wanted to reach out to them about how fashion can still be cool and convenient for them.”

Eileen hopes that people with special needs who are struggling with their condition will never falter and continue to push forward.

She says: “Through all the challenges and difficulties you face in life, the important thing is that you learn more about yourself. Get up and show the world that you can still be positive, live your life to the fullest and chase your dreams. After all, without difficulties or hardships, you can never taste success.”

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Top Image: Eileen Yap