Fashion and the Disabled Community: Is the Industry Becoming Truly Inclusive?

Opening image: Aaron Rose Philip by Myles Loftin

By Rita Nicotra

Between the body positivity movement and plus size models, fashion has arguably made huge strides in the last decade. However, when people think of inclusiveness, they often apply it mainly to skin colour, gender identity, age and size. Despite Edward Enninful’s recent British Vogue cover, which featured disabled models such as Ellie Goldstein and actor Selma Blair, who has multiple scoliosis, it is still important to recognise that at the roots of the fashion industry, disability still remains a huge taboo.

The power of fashion should not be understated. When fashion brands break barriers and fight exclusion, their effort reflects on society. Let’s not forget the first female-specific tuxedo presented by YSL in 1966 that marked an important step for female empowerment. Fashion shows in particular are the place where designers can showcase the diversity they want to see, both in the industry and in wider society. Disabled people are under-represented as both consumers and models and, as a result, disappear. As we rarely see people with disabilities on the catwalk, we don’t consider how the collections could relate to them. According to the WHO World Report on Disability, they make up 15% of the world’s population, namely 1.3 billion, yet only 0.02% of fashion and beauty campaigns feature disabled models and a minute amount of brands include them on the runway. Consequently, if models with physical or mental disabilities were put at the forefront of fashion more often, we could challenge this taboo, showing how beautiful people of all abilities can be. 

Despite this, there are some brands that have taken the road of adaptive clothing. These are clothes that take into account motor difficulties for people who, for example, cannot use zips and buttons, or the needs of autistic people who may find certain types of fabric anxiety inducing or extremely uncomfortable.

The pioneer was IZ Collection, a Canadian brand started by Izzy Camilleri, which created clothes suitable for wheelchair users. IZ was then followed by Abilitee and So Yes, brands that, through clever adaptations, create accessible, comfortable and stylish clothes for people with disabilities. This market was ignored by luxury brands, until the Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive Collection. Upon seeing how his daughter with autism struggled with buttons and shoelaces, Hilfiger realised the need for a more inclusive fashion industry. In 2016, the brand created an adaptive collection for children with disabilities. Although positive, these strides have struggled to make it into the mainstream. 

For Colina Strada’s SS21 collection, two models in wheelchair starred on the runway: Emily Barker and Aaron Rose Philip. After that, Aaron starred in almost four seasons of Collina Strada’s shows. “They’ve always been the ones to understand me and see me for my actual talents as a dedicated model” she said in an interview. Collina Strada, a New York based brand founded in 2014 by the designer Hillary Taymour, built the identity of her brand over issues such as social awareness and self expression. One of the main reflections of this mission is in Collina Strada models’ selection for the shows, which includes transgender, non-binary and disabled models. However, this attitude is rare. Many fashion brands cast models with disability as a tokenistic act, which has been widely criticised and labelled as a mere marketing strategy. Victoria’s Secret had to cancel their famous show in 2019, displaying the “Angels” after it was strongly criticised for its stereotyped, unrealistic and sexualised representations of the female body. This led to a drastic and sudden changement in their strategy, now claiming to be “inclusive”. In 2022, they launched the Love Cloud Collection, where they chose to have Sofia Jirau, the first model with Down’s syndrome, together with Miriam Blanco, a model with a physical disability. Despite this, true inclusivity would include models with disabilities in all their campaigns and collections, rather than just as a one off.

Models with disabilities often fear they will only be chosen in line with a brand’s virtue signalling and diversity quotas – and not for their abilities and work ethic. Many of them had the chance to get started in fashion thanks to “special” projects. “Models of Diversity”, for instance, is a charity running campaigns “for more diversity in the models we see everyday” in order to recognise the beauty in people of all races, ages, shapes, sizes and abilities. Projects like this one can be a good starting point, but I hope in near future they won’t be necessary.

Not all disabilities are physical, or even noticeable. The autistic model Nina Marker has walked the runway for luxury brands such as Dior, Valentino, Givenchy and Versace, among many others. She also became famous thanks to her role in the video clip of Maneskin’s single ‘Supermodel’, released last year. Unfortunately, this only highlights how disability is still on the fringes of the fashion industry, as luxury brands are reluctant to put models with more noticeable disabilities on the catwalk.

The voices – and faces – of the disabled community are still not fully heard. When they do appear on the runway, the stir they cause is indicative of just how revolutionary their presence is. While there have, of course, been major developments in inclusivity in the fashion industry, it’s still not enough. Here’s to Fashion Weeks where it’s not just okay to see models with disability walking down the catwalk among everyone else – it’s the norm.

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