02/12/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
In high school, "I was like a consultant," says Denise Lasprogata. "People would stop and ask me what to wear." When the Philadelphia native and her close friend Jody Sack were going out, "we'd take clothes and throw them on the bed, then she'd try on different outfits," Lasprogata recalls. "She'd say, 'Help me look good.' "
But in the summer of 1990 Sack was blinded in a car accident—and went from asking for fashion tips to relying completely on others. "She could no longer dress herself," says Lasprogata, who hated seeing her pal in mismatched clothes. "It shifted my perception."
So much so that Lasprogata, now 27, is devoting her professional life to making blind people fashionable, self-sufficient dressers. Realizing that standard clothing labels are of little help to someone who can't see, Lasprogata patented a washable label that identifies the garment's color and provides care instructions in both braille and raised letters. This year Lasprogata began mass-producing the tags for clothing manufacturers and also sewing them into her new clothing line DEE DEE (Lasprogata's nickname), known for hip separates adorned with sequins that spell out the company's name in braille. For the blind the products represent "a step toward independence," raves Audrey Schading, 47, a blind teacher at the Jewish Guild for the Blind in Manhattan.
The estimated 8.5 million Americans who are legally blind or vision-impaired constitute "a population that's been overlooked," says Lasprogata. "Dressing rooms have to be handicapped accessible, but where are the products and services for the blind? No one's called attention to it."
That's a failure Lasprogata—who will donate 10 percent of her profits to charities for the blind—intends to correct. "What Dee Dee is doing is very exciting," says Brigette Valenzano, owner of Rescue 138, a Philadelphia shop that carries Lasprogata's colorful T-shirts. (The $30 tops are also sold at New York City's Henri Bendel and Only Hearts Boutique and at the DEE DEE Web site.) "The blind can know what they're buying without having to ask."
The youngest of three daughters of Vincent, 56, a retired salesman, and Janis, 55, a real estate and insurance agent, Lasprogata graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1995 with a degree in psychology, then worked at a variety of jobs—waitress, yoga teacher, child-care provider—while planning her business. She spent the past five years volunteering as a personal shopper for the blind, learning braille and raising some of the $500,000 in investment capital needed to launch her company.
In addition to expanding DEE DEE—for Valentine's Day she plans to issue coordinating underwear sets with the French saying Touche Moi (Touch Me) in braille—the unmarried Lasprogata, who shares a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment with a roommate, is urging the Federal Trade Commission to make braille a requirement on clothing labels. "It's a pretty cool idea," says FTC spokesman Mitch Katz.
Tragically, Jody Sack never knew about the clothing line she inspired. In the summer of 1998, while at a rooftop party, Sack lost her footing on a fire escape and fell to her death. Lasprogata was devastated: "For someone to have survived [a car wreck] and then suddenly pass away—nobody could believe it." She takes comfort knowing that Sack would have wholeheartedly celebrated her success. "She always inspired me to go for it," Lasprogata says. "If it wasn't for her, I don't know if I would have done any of this."
Jennifer Frey in New York City