It seems that the latest must-have accessory for autumn/winter 2010 is a disabled model with fashion shows full of disabled models springing up left, right and slightly off-centre. But, asks Lara Masters, is this a trend that’s got legs, wheels or crutches or is it just a flash in the fashion pan?
I recently wrote about Models of Diversity’s all-inclusive catwalk show, which felt a tad amateur and left me wondering if disabled models would ever be taken seriously. Since then, venerable tie-fetishist Jon Snow has compèred Disabled and Sexy – a fashion show with disabled models in London’s Notting Hill – because he believes, “The whole fashion industry has a role to play in ensuring disabled people are more visible and have the same opportunities as everyone else.” And HAFAD (Hammersmith and Fulham Action on Disability) fronted Fashion with Passion which boasted a mix of disabled and able-bodied models and designers including some big names.
I approach disability-fashion hybrid endeavours with slight trepidation because I’m not one to put a positive spin on things because they happen to have disabled people involved. Disability is no excuse for mediocrity and when it comes to modelling – blind, deaf, one leg or two heads – you’ve either got it or you haven’t.
It’s important that disabled models are convincing and competent so they’ll be employed in the frankly fascistic fashion industry but it’s more vital that they become beacons for other disabled people who may be struggling with their self-image.
Ex-model agent Jonathan Phang, who worked as the disabled models’ mentor in Britain’s Missing Top Model says, “We need to look beyond stereotypes. Not only to encourage the fashion world to change their thinking but to help raise a deeper understanding about the prejudices young, beautiful disabled women have to overcome every day.”
Jonathan is backing a charter launched by disabled stylist Tess Daly who organised Disabled and Sexy with the Jennifer Trust for Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Tess says, “I wanted this fashion show to prove that people with even the most severe disability can follow fashion, display individuality and have sex appeal. We aim to keep pushing the boundaries that have been put upon people with disabilities within the fashion industry with the help of this charter.”
The manifesto calls for measurable change in the fashion industry including urging high street retailers to follow Debenhams’ lead in using disabled models in their advertising, for disabled models to be used in major clothing catalogues like Littlewoods and Next Directory and for a disabled model to be featured on the front cover of Vogue within a year.
If it sounds ambitious it’s perhaps because as disabled people, we’re used to being side-lined and having doors slammed in our face – often quite literally – but with these recent attempts to marry disability and the fickle world of fashion, and the interest the subject is receiving from influential figures, that charter now seems achievable.
I attended HAFAD’s Fashion with Passion which was organised by wheelchair-user Zubee Kibris to “make more retail chains and designers aware of the ‘wheel pound’.” It featured a proper catwalk in Hammersmith and West London College refectory and some impressively confident, well-choreographed models with disabilities including wheelchair-user Jordan Bone and Ramona Williams who’s blind (pictured) with Temisan Williams brother of Ortise out of JLS!.
TV stars Kelly-Marie Stewart from Hollyoaks and former-EastEnder and wheelchair-user David Proud also worked the catwalk in collections from mainstream designers including John Smedley, Fullcircle and ASOS.com as well as disabled designers WheeliChix-Chic and GlamSticks.
It feels like change is actually happening and it’s not just lip-service. Debenhams has used an obviously disabled model in their advertising campaigns, the nation’s favourite newsreader worked alongside the disabled models at Disabled and Sexy and HAFAD got the support of big brands and celebs.
However, delectable Shannon Murray comments, “At the moment I don’t know if I’ll be doing more with Debenhams, fashion moves fast and what was ‘in’ last season may not be ‘in’ next season. While it’s an achievement to appear in a high street store campaign and have more disabled actors appear in prime-time soaps, while disabled people are being bullied and victimised in their own homes there is still a long way to go…”
Only time will tell if this is all just a phase or the first step/wheel into a new era for disability representation.