Throughout history, fashion has had the power to advance cultural discussions, writes Grace Stratton.
For its summer 2019 issue, fashion magazine i-D – constantly hailed as a source of inspiration in fashion culture – put neurodiverse environmental activist Greta Thunberg on its cover. By featuring an advocate like Thunberg so prominently, i-D is telling us something important: that the role of the fashion industry isn’t just to make money, but to be an advocate and vessel for cultural discussions that matter.
When I first became interested in fashion, I expected to be shut out. I used a wheelchair and, as a consumer, I never saw myself or others who lived with disabilities reflected in the industry. In reality, from the moment I entered the fashion space, I felt accepted. I will never forget my first Fashion Week in 2017, when Murray Bevan, founder of fashion PR company Showroom 22, came up and asked me to let him know if I had any problems accessing anything.
I grew up believing that the fashion world didn’t want me, and I was wrong. The individuals working within it were welcoming, and all had things that made them different – just as I did.
Very quickly I learned that, in the fashion industry, your differences are your strengths. They are what drives you and they do not need to be assimilated to normality in order for you to find success. In the real world we don’t teach people to be proud of their disabilities, we teach them to loathe them, or at most to simply be neutral. I do not believe this. I believe that I, and people like me, should be proud of our access needs – I really like my body and how it navigates space, and I should not have to justify that to you.
Our response to people with access needs should be to embrace, innovate, design better and challenge ourselves to look inwards at the historical narratives we carry. We need to critically ask “why do these needs exist?”. I have seen these responses to my access needs more frequently in the fashion industry than I have anywhere else.
Fashion has had the power to advance cultural discussions throughout history. The 2008 “Black Issue” of Vogue Italia, which sold out in the US and UK within 72 hours of publication, reflects this. Featuring portraits of the leading black supermodels of the day and celebrating black women in the world of politics, art and entertainment, the issue came at a time, according to fashion activist Bethann Hardison, when “few people in the fashion industry were talking openly about the need for more inclusion of black models on the runways, on covers and in advertising”.
The “Black Issue” took away any excuses that fashion publications or houses had not to include black models, while helping to further the discussion about cultural inclusion in the industry. This conversation is of course still being had today, and we still have a long way to go, but that single magazine issue had a real effect: it made people feel seen by fashion in a way they never had been before. And that’s where my desire to work in fashion comes from. Once you understand fashion, you realise it’s not just about the clothes.
Fashion has power – and we must speak truth to that power.
I have lived my whole life as a wheelchair user. At 20 years old, I actually really like my wheelchair and I like my body. Fashion helped give me an avenue for expressing myself beyond my chair, changing my power over who I was and how I articulated myself to others. My daily navigation of the world still includes having to duck and dodge my way around people’s misguided perceptions of who I am and what I need, and I still have to answer the odd question about whether or not I can have children – but that’s usually just overly keen shopkeepers.
It is tiring to have to navigate this, but it becomes normal. Around five months ago, I realised that the flawed notions surrounding disability that I experienced didn’t have to be accepted. That’s when I turned to fashion to make that change. Five months later All is For All, the company I co-founded with Angela Bevan, has placed six models who live with various disabilities in New Zealand Fashion Week, and we work with some of New Zealand’s leading brands.
Although we’ve brought light to accessibility, we still have a long way to go. But when you place a model who is drop-dead gorgeous and uses a wheelchair in an editorial or on a runway in her lingerie, you directly challenge the flawed notions surrounding disability. Society implicitly teaches that disability is to be fixed or avoided, so placing a wheelchair user on a runway helps to challenge and break down this narrative. Because, of course, the narrative is wrong.
Once the audience sees that wheelchair-using model in the context of fashion, they might start to wonder how she navigates the world everyday. They might start to have a greater understanding of her capacity to be in the world, successfully, as exactly who she is.
They might even start looking at the whole world differently.