Disability And The Fashion Industry: What's The Story?
Eighteen years ago, designer Alexander McQueen cast Paralympian Aimee Mullins to walk his runway in a chiffon skirt, a moulded leather corset and a pair of hand-crafted, wooden prosthetic legs.
Although the intricate, heeled prosthetics looked just like boots from a distance, a closer look revealed that McQueen had seen Mullins' amputated legs not as a disability, but instead as an opportunity to create magic on the runway. So why, almost two decades later, haven't more designers taken this same approach?
Model Kelly Knox last month investigated this lack of disabled representation in fashion; it's a subject close to her heart, as she was born with one forearm missing but has gone on to gain success as a model.
"I never considered myself disabled, so to suddenly be labelled as such was hard for me," Knox says of entering the fashion industry.
"I didn't realise how much ignorance there was around disability. It opened my eyes, and made me want to make sure that every young disabled person could grow up confidently in their own skin."
This representation is undeniably important, but it also makes good business sense. Knox states that there are 13.3million disabled people in the UK, and that they collectively spend £249billion per year.
Yet, still, aside from high-profile examples like Knox, Jillian Mercado and Jamie Brewer, there are very few disabled models in the fashion industry.
"I do think fashion is becoming more inclusive," Knox tells LADbible. "There is still a way to go but I remember that 10 years ago, when I started modelling, a model at London Fashion Week said 'New York Fashion Week would rather burn down than see a disabled model on their runway'."
This attitude can have obvious repercussions - if there is no demand for disabled models, then there are no agencies willing to represent them.
Zebedee Management is seeking to change this. With hundreds of faces on its books, it is the first modeling agency to house only disabled models. The brainchild of social worker Laura and teacher Zoe, who specialises in teaching performing arts to vulnerable children and adults, the agency looks set to make a genuine change by landing high-profile gigs with commercial clients.
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"The fashion and advertising industries have come on leaps and bounds in terms of diversity, but they still aren't where they need to be," explains Laura and Zoe.
"Importantly, disability has often been left out of the 'diversity debate' - it's like the last taboo, and we want to change this.
"We have so many gorgeous and able models on our books, all of whom have great passion and confidence. So we hope that brands want to work with us, and that together we can change attitudes and help develop societal understandings of disability."
It's easy to make excuses for these omissions - lack of accessible venues for photo shoots, lack of disabled models signed to agencies - but the biggest problem is that brands often aren't asked to. The demand for diversity is growing, but disability is still often left out of these conversations.
"Most people think of the word 'disabled' and think of something negative; they fear it," reiterates Knox.
"Even saying it makes me feel uneasy - it sounds so outdated, boring, frumpy and uninspiring. I have connection with it whatsoever.
"I would like to scrap this word."
Despite her own feelings on the term, Knox also describes a feeling of responsibility as one of the few visible models in the industry.
"This is for every 'disabled' person who has ever felt guilty or ashamed about their body. I want to help them heal, to let them know that perfection is not something to aspire to and to help them make peace with their body. Freedom of the mind is everything."
Words: Jake Hall
Featured Image Credit: Kelly in a fashion shoot. Credit Omkaar Kotedia