ELLE WEEKENDER 2018
On Saturday evening I had the honour of speaking about Why Representation in Fashion Matters at the fantastic ELLE Weekender festival. Taking place in London’s Saatchi Gallery over three days, this inaugural event saw industry game-changers, actors, bestselling writers and activists coming together to inspire and exchange perspectives. Conversation spanned everything from digital detoxing and the unattainable quest for happiness, to the feminist politics of money and what it really means to be British in 2018.
The incredible line up of speakers included Rosamund Pike in conversation with Pandora Sykes about her latest role as the late war correspondent Marie Colvin and the pursuit of truth in journalism today; Diane von Furstenberg speaking about her life and the legacy of her brand; and other inspiring women including Molly Goddard, Maisie Williams, Cleo Wade, Mishal Husain, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Eva Chen.
I was invited to join a panel discussing the importance of representation in the fashion industry alongside Jan De Villeneuve, Munroe Bergdorf and Charli Howard. Led by ELLE’s contributing editor and the founder of Gal-Dem Liv Little, the conversation focused on our own experiences of working in the industry, how to tackle the industry’s historic lack of diversity and the positive changes we’ve witnessed in the past few years. Whilst we were all there to represent different corners of the debate (age, size, gender, race, ability), one thing was clear: everyone was united in their belief that better representation is needed across the board. We wanted to share knowledge with the aim of being better allies for everyone- all movements towards greater representation in fashion are entwined, and not isolated entities.
Whilst speaking on the panel was a nerve-racking prospect, I was determined to contribute to this vital conversation and share my perspective as one of a minority of people with disabilities trying to break into the fashion industry. I’m very proud to have contributed to the panel and so glad I was given the opportunity to highlight the many unspoken issues surrounding disability representation in fashion (both from the perspective of disabled consumers, potential fashion journalists and disability models). If you are interested in reading a short roundup of my views on the topics we debated, have a read below. I’d also like to say a huge thank you to the whole team at ELLE who were amazing at ensuring it was possible for me to access the event.
The language of diversity
The words ‘diversity’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘representation’ will often be used synonymously and without discrimination, yet I believe there is a subtle difference that shouldn’t be ignored, as it reveals a lot about our stance towards minority voices.
Firstly, the term ‘inclusivity’ is purely about ensuring minority perspectives are seen, heard and ultimately accepted. But the difference between ‘diversity’ and ‘representation’ is perhaps harder to distinguish. For me ‘diversity’ implies a sense of difference, whereas ‘representation’ suggests it is just a reflection of the real world and bringing fashion in line with the wide spectrum of identities we see in our everyday lives. (All views my own.)
Speaking up about identity
Fashion represents more than trends and clothes, it’s a powerful way to explore identity and celebrate our differences- something I’ve always believed. So it’s a privilege to have a platform about something that reaches to the essence of what fashion is. There’s also a responsibility that comes with this privilege- I’m not just here to represent disability, but I need to be aware of and act as an ally for other minority voices. Whoever you are, I think there’s always something you can speak out about in terms of identity and social injustice especially as a woman-everything is political at the moment. The more people that speak out, the easier it becomes to do so.
There is a danger you can be defined by speaking out about representation, and I do feel I am so much more than my disability. But I’m in a situation where I have a really exiting chance to make positive change, and adjust attitudes because people with disabilities aren’t massively visible in the media.
Getting a foot in the door
For anyone breaking into the fashion industry is hard, but even more so if you have added difficulties. Because the more physical aspects of entry level jobs aren’t possible for me, it’s about believing that I am an asset and emphasising the many ways I can contribute. It’s just about having small measures in place to help me access opportunities.
I didn’t see many, if any, fashion editors with physical disabilities and this would have helped in believing there are aspects of the job that are viable for me. In the past year, the importance of diversity amongst editorial staff has been widely addressed by the fashion industry. Despite knowing I have a lot to contribute and a unique perspective, I feel very limited by my disability in terms of work. Perhaps this is similar to any other industry, but with fashion it’s partly about addressing the stereotype of who or what a fashion journalist should be.
One thing that has surprised me is how understanding and open people have been. During internships I’ve met some really positive people who have seen my potential. But because it’s such an untrodden path it’s not as if there are procedures in place like there may be in more corporate workplaces, I’ve had to ask for adjustments and wasn’t sure of the response I would get. It’s such a competitive industry and at times you’re very conscious of being seen as a nuisance.
Disability representation in fashion
We are much more aware of the need for diversity in fashion, but in terms of disability representation disabled models are largely absent from fashion campaigns and fashion week. Despite the fact that a staggering 20% of people have disabilities.
There are a handful of examples like Teatum Jones who are leading the way in this respect, they’ve used disability models in their shows for the past few seasons. Here disabled models were shown at London Fashion Week for the first time last year since Alexander McQueen in 1998- twenty years ago. McQueen placed the Paralympian Aimee Mullins on his catwalk in a pair of hand-crafted prosthetic legs. He was truly a pioneer, recognising early on that so called ‘deformity’ and ‘otherness’ is really only a label.
Other recent examples include ASOS’s use of disability models to illustrate how their designs look on a seated model, Tommy Hilfiger’s adaptive clothing range and M&S’s childrenswear adaptive clothing line.
The crux of the issue
There’s an element of stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds those who have a disability or are visually different. Throughout history, disability has been synonymous with victimhood and a loss of agency- which contributed to the social exclusion, discrimination and inequality experienced by those with disabilities. However, I do think attitudes are changing and there is more consideration towards disability. It’s about realising that beauty lies in our differences, not simply in a prescriptive version of what society says is physically attractive. Because fashion is a commercial industry, designers are perhaps unwilling to put profits in jeopardy and alienate their audience.
Critics will often condemn the use of disabled models as tokenism, so we need to ensure the representation in fashion is delivered with authenticity and genuine respect.
The solution is very simple, change will happen organically if there’s more representation in positions of creative authority- whether that’s in terms of ability, gender, social background, or ethnicity. Having diverse voices leading from inside the industry and at the forefront of fashion will fundamentally shape its output in a genuine and effective way.
However, this is a long-term solution. Consulting those with disabilities and making sure they have some input in the creative process should be a minimum. For example, with Teatum Jones’ AW17 and SS18 collections (The Body Pt. I and II) they worked with their disability models from as early on as the design process to ensure they were happy with the clothes. This was greatly appreciated, we can’t make decisions “about them, without them” as the saying goes.
Personally, I don’t think the industry’s current fascination with diversity is solely a marketing stunt or a form of tokenism. The wider political climate has shifted, so it would be incredibly difficult to close this conversation surrounding inclusivity and go back to exclusively representing models who conform to old stereotypes of ‘beauty’.
My experiences of exclusion
One of the main areas of exclusion is how I experience (or don’t experience) fashion in physical stores due to poor retail access. From the research I’ve done so far, this stems from a sense of misunderstanding- being fashion conscious and having a disability are not mutually exclusive. Those with disabilities want to have full access to fashion stores but are often limited due to inadequate provision in shops.
This may seem like a separate issue to disability models but by improving the visibility of those with visual differences across fashion media, the more they become part of the wider conversation in fashion.
There’s no doubt that the last few years have been momentous, but looking towards 2019 we need more change
The next step is for diverse models to become the new normal- when they don’t have to be seen as ‘ground-breaking’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘headline-grabbing’ or any other superlative suggesting it’s a radical move to represent real people. This will serve as a powerful message for society as a whole.
But in terms of how fashion caters to disabled consumers and future fashion journalists seeking a role in this industry, there are still so many barriers which haven’t fully been addressed (let alone resolved). Think poor retail accessibility. Or the lack of access to internship or job opportunities catering to those with disabilities. Fashion brands could sponsor internship schemes or jobs for those with disabilities who want to break into the industry- such as Tommy Hilfiger.
My own aim is to create a vision for fashion media that celebrates diverse identities and highlights the importance of acceptance.