Hey, Designers: Putting A Disabled Person On The Runway Doesn’t Automatically Make You Inclusive

by Ana Prundaru


When disabled models hit the runway at the FTL Moda’s fall/winter 2015 show, popular media outlets and fashion magazines, including Buzzfeed (“These Models With Disabilities Featured In An Inspiring New York Fashion Week Show”) and Cosmopolitan (“9 Inspiring Photos of Models With Disabilities Working the Runway at NYFW” ) showered designers with misplaced compliments for their seemingly inspirational work. But they are terribly missing the point. 

Don’t get me wrong: The barrier-breaking success of each model living with a disability should be fiercely supported and celebrated. But in light of the historically marginalizing rhetoric of disability and the resulting near-erasure of disabled people from TV, music, fashion and literature, it is not difficult to see how presenting fashion designers as saviors for putting disabled models on stage enforces negative stereotypes that devalue disabled people. The harmful objectification of disability and the demeaning practice of spreading inspiration porn has to stop. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to which designers hire disabled models for their skills, and which designers employ them solely for their disability, in order to shamelessly capitalize on the exploitation of a romanticized vision of life in a disabled body. Disabled models shouldn’t be called a trend, and they certainly deserve better than becoming the next disposable, shallow, eventually-discarded fashion fad.

All fashion doesn’t need to be political, but it is revolting to see fashion brands riding the movement of employing disabled or marginalized models as they conceal their greed behind a glitzy veil of false inclusivity. In the case of fashion designers who have recently started to use disabled models, inevitably the question arises: How many create clothing for different needs? Or, stated differently: How many view disabled people as viable customers for their brand?

The widely celebrated Antonio Urzi, whose designs for the FTL Moda fashion show were worn by models with disabilities, makes no clothing that suits bodies with varied needs. But during the show, Urzi had a model with an amputated leg wear a pair of pants with the legs rolled up, so as to reveal the model’s prosthesis. This questionable decision to highlight his prosthesis, instead of the fashion product, inevitably had the effect of reducing the model to his handicap, therefore denying him the multilayeredness automatically afforded to able-bodied models.

Adding to the wide-ranging misrepresentation of a diverse community, it appears few designers featuring disabled models, or catering to disabled people, seriously concern themselves with specific aspects of disability. It is no secret that there is a major need for clothing that addresses challenges of life with disability, such as adaptive clothing for amputees and clothing for those with dressing problems. Yet it speaks volumes about our society’s concept of equality when certain designers completely pass on the opportunity to consult the disabled community before creating a “disabled line” (like Zappos).

Shallow embrace of what able-bodied people consider disability to be is a terrifying reflection of ignorance that ultimately enables barriers to equality. Furthermore, when influencers like musical phenomenon Beyoncé and pop icon Miley Cyrus profit from including disabled and marginalised people in their campaigns or shows, their actions are capable of societal damage, as they inevitably become forces that influence public consciousness of disability. As we work to reframe disability, it is therefore imperative to consider the effect that such social forces have on our perceptions.

That being said, it is refreshing to experience the emergence of a growing number of innovative designers whose work reflects purpose and a keen sense of adequate representation. For example, Robyn Griffiths began designing clothing that enables more independence after discovering the need for clothing that is easy to put on by people with joint problems. Another designer, Takafumi Tsuruta, creates clothing based on multiple needs, using disabled models to present the respective designs, next to able-bodied models who present designs made for their bodies. Then there is the Canadian brand ALLELES, which offers stunning art prosthetic covers for legs and arms.  

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Fashion trends have potential to become social instruments which shape our understanding of the realities of life with disability. As such, it is critical they do not glamorize or fetishize disability. Given the power to transcend boundaries and contribute toward dismantling systemic ableism, the way fashion is developed and presented matters, just as language and art matter. As consumers, we have no excuse not to pay attention to the intentions of the brands we support.

Top photo: Facebook/FTL Moda

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