It was a strange and uncomfortable experience for the 350 fashion industry executives who “dined in the dark” Wednesday at the Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park, raising $500,000 for Foundation Fighting Blindness.

 

Many squirmed in their seats or sat totally rigid as vision-impaired servers guided them through the main course, the darkened part of the evening lasting a half hour. Several cheated by using mobile phones to find their food and got booed by the crowd for it, and some even left the pitch black ballroom, unable to cope.

 

“I was actually looking for my tomato. I never found it,” said Dr. Joyce Brown, president of Fashion Institute of Technology, among those sticking it out, leaving most of her food on her plate, but getting a brief taste of some challenges blind people deal with everyday. It was the first time the fashion industry was organized to support FFB.

 

“Living with retinitis pigmentosa meant I lived in constant fear I would wake up one morning completely blind,” said Evan Mittman, who chaired the event. However, he said that since the formation of the 40-year-old Foundation Fighting Blindness, which funds cutting edge research in such areas as gene therapy, retinal cell transplantation, artificial retinal implants and pharmaceutical and nutritional therapies, “We have an understanding of retina-related vision loss and we are closer to treatments… More than 10 million Americans suffer from retinal degeneration.”

 

“Imagine not being able to see a baby, the sunlight, flowers, the pyramids, the Statue of Liberty…or being able to match your clothes in the morning,” said Jill Granoff, the former Kenneth Cole chief executive who was honored during the event, along with Rick Darling, president of LF USA, and devoted much of her speech to commending Mittman for “dreaming big.” She said Mittman built a $100 million “powerhouse” accessory brand called Cipriani despite being vision impaired, and sold it to Li & Fung. When Mittman first met Darling to discuss the deal, Mittman kept him in the dark about his vision problem. “Through six months of negotiating with Evan, I had no idea,” Darling said. It was until much later, when Mittman asked Darling to help him get to a Li & Fung event in Macao, that Darling became aware. “There’s nobody I have met in my life as inspirational as Evan,” Darling said.

 

“He’s a leader in the industry. He built a great company — and sold it for much more than it’s worth.”

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