By  on April 10, 2006

NEW YORK — The "Fashion for Development" runway show at the United Nations was best seen from Dilsia Villalaz's perspective, who inspected her handiwork and eyed the artistry of competitors from a front-row seat.

Despite the distraction of 10 children and seven grandchildren, the 47-year-old Panama resident starts her day at 5 a.m. and often finesses embroidery and flower appliqués for designer Helen Breebart until midnight. Like most of Breebart's contracted sewers and artisans, Villalaz, a member of the Kuna Indian tribe, works from home and takes her finished pieces to the designer's office every few days.

"Everyone is talking about the indigenous," said Breebart, referring to the Women Together-backed program, which is designed to help rev up interest in developing countries. "We should speak of the richness of the artisans' work, which is disappearing from the face of the earth. We should familiarize people with the handmade work that is being done in these countries instead of being inundated with cheap things from the Orient."

In her opening remarks, Karolina Kurkova, who along with Yoko Ono, Shakira and others received awards before the show last week, noted that John Galliano and Christian Lacroix contracted workers through Women Together after a similar show was staged in Paris last year.

For this week's show, which featured designers from Colombia, Panama, Brazil's Salvador de Bahia, India, Uruguay, Bangladesh, Mexico, Morocco and Peru, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Harold Koda, Panama's first lady Vivian Fernandez de Torrijos, Barneys New York's Julie Gilhart and Saks Fifth Avenue's Michael Fink showed up. "I was just curious to see the representation of international fashion sectors other than Milan, Paris, New York, London and Tokyo," said Koda.

Bogota-based designer Amelia Toro said many of her 74 workers are single mothers. She understands the U.S. market's demand for designer clothing explains why American and European designers get so much attention, but that does not eclipse some of the challenges lesser-known talent faces. "Our countries are very poor. The difficult thing is we don't have the history in [designer] clothing," she said. "But slowly the doors get opened. By showing the artisans' work, hopefully we will sell to bigger stores."

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