TAMPA, Fla. — At Tampa’s Hotel Alba, model Caitlyn Cooks confidently strutted across the pool deck practicing her runway walk.

Her fellow models — women from Florida with amputations, spinal cord injuries, Down syndrome or colon cancer — cheered along from the sidelines that Friday afternoon.

The models represented Lady Fines, a local fashion company designing accessible clothing for women with disabilities. The brand debuted its first collection at Tampa Bay Fashion Week later that night.

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Because of the various disabilities Lady Fines was highlighting, the team realized they needed more time practicing than others in the event to ensure every model was comfortable with the stage. They were moved several times after they ran out of rehearsal time in the ballroom, finding space to work on their struts in the hotel lobby, the restaurant and finally the pool deck.

Owner Lady Natasha Fines paused Cooks midway through her walk to advise her and the rest of the women to show off their personalities and to have fun with the audience during the show.

Cooks kept walking with a smile on her face. When she reached the end of the imaginary runway where the cameras would be, she hesitated.

“What should my final pose be?” Cooks asked.

“Show the velcro feature, then do your thing,” said Emeline Fines, business partner and mother of Lady Natasha Fines.

Cooks wore a cropped black shirt with puffed shoulders, a bedazzled denim collar and a detachable sleeve showing off her missing arm. Cooks was born with amniotic band syndrome, a condition where tissue in the womb can tangle around a limb and cut off blood flow. The 24-year-old from Orlando modeled for photo and video shoots before, but never in front of a live audience.

“I’m actually extremely nervous … but at the same time I’m also super-duper excited for it as well because I think it’s something that a lot of people are not expecting,” Cooks said. “We’re really going to show up and show them the reality instead of just, ‘average models.'”

Each outfit in the Lady Fines collection — full of Barbie pink and bedazzled embellishments — had features aiming to make life easier for women with disabilities.

Instead of buttons, clothes can be put on with velcro or magnets. A pair of cargo pants has zippers on both sides to help girls who have limited dexterity in their legs. A track suit has zippers at the neckline and wrists for discrete access to IVs and medical devices.

Some pieces feature empowering phrases such as “Rebel with a cause” or “No one is you and that is your superpower.”

“I love the fact that Natasha has sleeves that you can take on and off,” Cooks said. “So that way if I don’t want to have to struggle with a long sleeve on my shorter arm, I can just take that one off.”

Lady Natasha Fines, born and raised in Tampa, got a degree in fashion business management from New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology and has worked as a fashion and jewelry buyer for several years. She started Lady Fines when she noticed there was a gap in the industry. She said many mainstream brands failed to meet the needs of people with disabilities or weren’t heavily invested in improving accessibility.

She wanted to start her company in the Tampa Bay area, not only because of the region’s fast growth but because it was a childhood dream to launch from her hometown.

“I always thought I need to go to New York, I need to go to L.A. to be able to make it. And I want to show other little girls that you could be in Tampa and you can still make it,” Fines said.

Fines committed to recruiting local models, which she said was a struggle because many modeling agencies told her that they didn’t have any with disabilities. After reaching out to casting agencies and messaging people on Instagram, Fines found six models from Orlando to Miami who would represent the brand.

“I told them this brand is your brand. I want the customer, other girls like you, to look up to you and to hear your voice and to hear your story,” Fines said. “Because these are more than just fashion pieces. This is about who you are and having that representation.”

The first half of the 16th Tampa Bay Fashion Week show began with a series of lingerie lines, a modern twist on 1960s style and colorful children’s wear. Lady Fines opened after the show’s intermission.

As guests settled back into their seats, “This is Me” from the Greatest Showman movie soundtrack began to play.

While most of the models before them walked the runway with stoic faces, each Lady Fines model came out with a huge smile. Supporters from the front row screamed out the names of each model. The audience joined in, clapping and cheering for each model throughout the show.

Cooks walked out in her puffed-sleeve shirt with the right sleeve off to not hide her shorter arm. Halfway through the runway, she put her left hand on her hip. Making her way toward the cameras, she unlatched the shirt’s collar and opened the flap to show the velcro.

She dramatically turned, allowing her curly hair sway, revealing a cheeky denim heart on the back of the pants.

At the end, all the women walked out together in a line and offered a final look at the clothes, each with a different accessibility feature.

Once the show wrapped up, the team took photos together outside the hotel ballroom and celebrated their debut.

Fines beamed over her models. She was already thinking about making a checklist for future fashion shows to improve accessibility for the girls.

“When I saw them backstage from the screen, I could see them going down and I can see the smile on their faces and how excited they were,” Fines said. “Despite everything that we were going through in the background, I’m just proud of what I saw out on the stage.”

© 2023 Tampa Bay Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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