It's gala season in New York City, the time of year when glamorous fashion personae and uptown benefactresses spend most of their spring weekday evenings doing their round of charitable balls and black-tie benefits. Last night, though, The Plaza Hotel hosted a very different kind of fundraiser: a top tier dinner served in total darkness. The concept, originally introduced by a blind clergyman named Jorge Spielmann from Zurich, has become embraced worldwide as an innovative experiment designed to increase empathy and awareness of what life for the blind is like. New York City Foundation Fighting Blindness has made an annual tradition of inviting some of the city's top creative influencers to dine in pitch black conditions to "shed light" upon and promote their cause. This year, the event united music and fashion, with rock-inspired designer Andy Hilfiger serving as special guest speaker and young blind musicians supported by Visionary Media providing the evening's entertainment.
Visionary Media founder Doug Maxwell, a legally blind musician, composer, and producer who has worked with everyone from Gladys Knight to Empire of the Sun, describes the current conundrum facing blind musicians as such: "As music production, recording, and distribution became digitized, it became less tactile. Everything is now software-based, and is heavily visual. How does a blind individual navigate these new challenges?" He started his company as a way to help support visually impaired musicians and audio professionals find opportunities in the musical mainstream, in both the studio and onstage. Fellow producer and Director of Artist Development Curtis Nystrom serves as a mentor to the musicians, and describes the annual Dining in the Dark fashion ball as a major performance milestone for many of them. One of last night's standout performers, Justin Kaufman, is only 15 years old.
"The boy is an inspiration," says Evan Mittman, the founder of accessories company Cipriani, who also co-chaired this year's event. Mittman, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, proves that being visually impaired doesn't need to derail a career in fashion business. Nor does it derail his vast social influence: he invited designer Andy Hilfiger (brother of Tommy) to host this year's gala. Rolling Stone caught up with Hilfiger to talk about his experience with this unique charity event, as well as his music projects and rock-oriented clothing line, Andrew Charles, which has been influenced and modeled by his friend and muse Steven Tyler.
How did you become involved with Dining in the Dark this year? Why does it feel relevant to you?
Evan Mittman put the event together, and he is both a friend and a colleague. Both his company and my company are partnered with LF USA, so we have more in common than just a love of music.
How did the dinner in darkness personally effect you?
It was a fascinating experiment, and it really made me think about how different life would be in the dark. There’s a feeling of loneliness and helplessness that goes along with that. I really respect the people who live in the dark every day and, like Evan Mittman, Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles, found so much success and helped others, especially now that I have an idea of what it is like to experience it.
What surprised you about the experience?
It reminded me of waiting for an encore at a concert.
How does it benefit fashion figures to get involved with musical causes?
Music and fashion are a marriage. You can’t successfully have one without the other. The greatest musicians are also style icons, so it is always important that they look great and have a style that is as synonymous as their sound. Just look at Mick Jagger, David Bowie or Steven Tyler; they’re known as much for their look as their sound.
In addition to designing, you also are a musician. What's the latest on both fronts?
My music projects are always a part of my fashion projects. My fashion line, Andrew Charles, is inspired by Steven Tyler and we recently did a fashion show with him in L.A. and a great after party at The Viper Room featuring the L.A. debut of a young, indie band that I work with called the Click Clack Boom. My friends Donovan Leitch and Billy Gibbons were there and got on stage to do a couple songs with me and The CCB. They also did in-store concerts as part of our Macy’s Tour across the country with me, and we’re looking forward to doing some more soon. I’m also in a band called The X Brothers with some of the original members of Blue Oyster Cult, and we are working on a new album and getting ready to do some gigs through the summer and then in the fall on the Lynyrd Skynyrd cruise.
How did your partnership with Steven originally start?
Steven has always been a huge inspiration to me, and, for a rock & roll inspired fashion line, there really is nobody else who embodies music and style as much as Steven Tyler. I started talking to him before he was involved with American Idol, and as someone who is really into fashion, he loved the idea. When he went on Idol it was amazing because he instantly became a household name for everyone in America, not just the music fans, and everyone was talking about what he was wearing. We put his youngest daughter, Chelsea, in the ads alongside him, and she looked amazing; very rock & roll.
Will you be continuing your Andrew Charles collaboration with Steven Tyler in upcoming seasons?
I was so lucky to have rock and style icon Steven Tyler as a partner and inspiration for the Andrew Charles fashion line. Now that he’s wrapping up the new Aerosmith album and going on tour, we’re looking for new ways to infuse Andrew Charles with rock & roll. We had a lot of success bringing excitement to the stores when we put The Click Clack Boom on tour, and are looking at more ways to promote young indie bands like them. Even Aerosmith started somewhere, and since labels no longer offer the support that they once did, I'm hoping that we can step in and help to keep new music alive.
What other musicians influence or inspire your designs and your own music?
Our women's collection, in particular, is inspired by 1970s bohemian rock style; people like Stevie Nicks and Marianne Faithful, with a bit of Janis Joplin and Joan Jett in the mix.