EPIC seeks to raise awareness, rehome couture creations

TAMPA | Empath Partners in Care (EPIC) is seeking a permanent home for a collection of five dresses made from condoms and other materials to raise awareness about the nonprofit’s work with HIV and AIDS throughout Tampa Bay.

The creations were featured at Balance Tampa Bay’s fourth annual masquerade ball Aug. 4, which raised $16,000 for EPIC. Conceptualized by artist and event chair Ryan Young, each design represents emotions an individual receiving HIV or AIDS care might feel while working with the organization.

“The dresses are just so fabulous,” EPIC Executive Director Joy Winheim says. “The time, effort and thought that went into creating them, and the story behind them, are just so touching. They’re a talking point – they bring HIV back into the conversation.”

Young says he created them to raise awareness about EPIC’s services. He conceptualized each dress after discussing the fight against HIV and AIDS with those personally impacted.

“The first look is ‘Undiscovered,’” Young explains, “and the concept is someone in society going day to day without knowing their status.” He says it’s reflective of an individual who may be afraid of getting tested; one who “camouflages their emotions.”

The second dress is based on chaos. It represents feelings an individual “might experience when they first get tested and they find out they’re HIV positive,” he says. “It’s a very scary period so I wanted to make it look very dramatic … in tiny letters it just says ‘I am positive, I am positive, I am positive.’ It invokes all of the mixed signals you’re getting when you’re first diagnosed.”

One of Young’s personal favorites is the third design. He says it signifies the struggle individuals may experience when coping with a new identity, something he found was common in his research. “People will put themselves into a category rather than seeing how beautiful they still are,” he says ofthose diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. “They can become very depressed and go through a lot of emotions like anger and depression. I’ve spoken with people who have experienced suicidal thoughts. This one is very personal.”

For the final two dresses, Young says he “wanted to take it up a notch” to end on an affirming note. The fourth design focuses on an individual making informed decisions. “This is the person who starts to get control of their life,” he says, “whether that’s through seeking information or making adjustments to have a healthier lifestyle.”

The fifth, another of his favorites, is “Conquered.” It represents “the person who no longer just identifies as an HIV person, they’re just who they are,” he explains. “They’re in control of their life, it does not define them and they’re very confident. They find ways to help other people.”

Known as Cassandra, the fifth design inspired the hashtag “#CassandrasArmy.” It’s utilized to chronicle “anything good happening in the community,” Young explains.

He adds that as Balance Tampa Bay and EPIC move forward with future masquerade benefits, they’ll find ways to incorporate the character and her army’s good deeds.“I love that people are still interested in the story,” he says. “The whole experience has been really rewarding.”

The collection is available at no cost, though donations to EPIC are appreciated.  For more information or to express interest, contact Joy Winheim at JoyWinheim@EmpathHealth.org. A gallery of the dresses courtesy of Ryan Young can be viewed below:

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