Can Disability Ever Be Fashionable?

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Something extraordinary happened at New York Fashion Week in February. A model in a wheelchair ‘walked’ the runway.

Wheelchair user Danielle Sheypuk was cast in this year’s New York Fashion Week. Isn’t it about time that people with disabilities can, and should, be better represented in the fashion industry?

This year marked the 71st year of New York Fashion Week. Hundreds of designers use the event to showcase their collections and grab audience attention with awe-inspiring outfits and ground-breaking creations.

And yet, this year was the first year that a person in a wheelchair made it onto the runway.

Why has it taken so long for the fashion industry to wake up to the fact that people with disabilities aren’t the faceless, uninspired and helpless minority? We all wear clothes, buy clothes and make fashion statements. Shouldn’t we all be represented fairly?

There is constant pressure on the fashion industry to include models who don’t fit into the stereotype of tall, white and very slim. Slowly, barriers are being broken down for skin colour and size. But there still remains an unhealthy lack of exposure for those with disabilities.

We know that the public do want to see disability represented properly. Former ‘Ms Wheelchair New York’, Dr Danielle Sheypuk, 35 made up part of the cast for the Carrie Hammer show at NYFW. When asked how people responded to her being among the madness at NYFW, she said:

“People were excited and enthusiastic. Many said phrases such as “Thank God” and “It’s about time!” I feel like people welcomed me.”

Sheypuk, a Brooklyn based psychologist, was born with muscular atrophy and has been in a wheelchair since she was two years old. She argued that “it’s very important for the spectrum of fashion designers to recognise their consumers with disabilities. I don’t think that any designer really does a good job of that.”

Carrie Hammer, the designer who Sheypuk modelled for, explained that she “made the decision to cast role models not runway models.” Hammer went on to say, “my line makes dresses to fit women. We don’t make dresses that women need to fit into.”

She recalls a visit to a ‘fit’ model casting once. ‘Fitting models’ are used to check how the manufacturer’s clothes fit on a human body.

“Almost all the fit models either wore padded bras or butt pads to make them perfectly dimensional by industry standards. If the fit model doesn’t even have the body of a fit model, the rest of us are toast!”

Sheypuk and Hammer aren’t the only ones challenging the values of the fashion industry. Michael Shamash, former chairman of the Restricted Growth Organisation agrees.

“Most people, disabled and non-disabled are not represented by adverts, magazines or television programmes. The construction of beauty is such a narrow one.”

But some steps are being taken in the right direction. Missing model winner, Kelly Knox, who was born without a left hand opened Pakistan Fashion week this year and also starred in Debenhams 2013 campaign with Paralympian Stef Reid.

She said, “Perfection doesn’t really exist. True beauty lies in embracing your own individuality.”

Knox’s words ring true with all of us. Every one of us is an individual, regardless of disability, race or body size.

The fashion industry cries out for consumers to be different, innovative, risk taking and creative with clothes. Yet ironically, we see the same type of models on every catwalk, every year, around the globe.

When will the fashion industry take a good, hard look at itself in the mirror and start taking some of their own advice? Fashion doesn’t start and end with tall, thin, white women. The people that consume fashion are as eclectic as the clothes the fashion models wear. It’s time to embrace that.


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Written by Josie Aplin,

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