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Fashion Week still has an ableism problem

Photo by Yuchen Liao/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows

“We deserve more space on and off the track.”

The fashion industry tends to preemptively congratulate itself. But whether it’s performative body inclusivity or greenwashing, brands aren’t always as progressive as they seem. And for people with disabilities, fashion is overtly ableist and exclusive. Look no further than New York Fashion Week.

This year, more than a hundred brands presented their creations in different places in the city. And amid the fashion frenzy for days, there was a heightened sense of accessibility. Labels like Collina Strada, Studio 189, Foo And Foo, Guvanch and Hester Sunshine sent models in wheelchairs to their catwalks. Not to mention that the non-profit organization Open Style Lab has produced a one-of-a-kind show dedicated to models with disabilities.

In an industry known for its exclusion, these exceptional points of representation are worth celebrating. But at the same time, they draw attention to the fact that New York Fashion Week — and the industry as a whole — is still overwhelmingly ableist.

“This season, I’ve seen more brands put more visibly disabled models on their runways than ever before,” says Bri Scalesse, a model and disability advocate who has ridden at Studio 189 and Guvanch. “But with one in four [Americans] being disabled, we are still massively underrepresented on the slopes, and public spaces are still mostly inaccessible.

Indeed, even to attend a fashion show, there are often basic physical requirements. It’s not uncommon for customers to pass through crowded crowds, climb stairs, or walk through narrow hallways. The seating arrangement is also not suitable for those with disabilities, with many presentations requiring attendees to congregate on bleachers or crowd in standing masses.

“Disability is an integral, beautiful, meaningful and massive part of humanity,” Scalesse says. “Inaccessibility is simply not acceptable with the resources we have in 2022.” Despite this, these ableist conditions are still the norm. But that should come as no surprise.

For so long, fashion has ignored people with disabilities. Even simple vocabulary terms like “catwalk” and “track” imply that you need to be physically fit to be a model. And shows often rely on that type of physicality. Take designer Victor Glemaud, who opened his New York Fashion Week show with roller skaters playfully parading down the runway. “Glemaud makes clothes you can really move into” vogue said of the show. But what if your body can’t move that way?

It’s not that brands shouldn’t incorporate performance aspects into their presentations. But it should be standard practice for designers to feature people of all abilities on their shows. And right now, that’s just not the case.

For those who are invalid, physically entering a location can be half the battle. When attending a fashion show, people with disabilities need to consider several aspects of accessibility, Scalesse explains. Can they enter through the door and move through space? Can they get on the track? Can they use the bathroom? “And can we do all of this without someone having to take us through a back entrance; a garbage disposal entrance; an elevator that we cannot operate ourselves? ” She adds. More often than not, the answer to at least half of these questions is no.

“I think that’s a huge disincentive for designers to use models with disabilities in an industry that already uses so few models with disabilities,” she continues. In turn, this lack of representation perpetuates the idea that the clothes on display are made for the able-bodied people who wear them and no one else. But truly innovative clothing can be both functional and fun.

Enter Open Style Lab. The organization’s show featured a whole collection of adaptive fashion, that is, non-restrictive models designed for people with disabilities. Whether it’s user-friendly ties, inclusive size ranges, or clothing that works with artificial limbs, the conscious approach to clothing pushes the long-held ideology of one-size-fits-all fashion. Beyond that, it supports the idea that clothes should fit the size of the wearer and not the other way around.

More and more, disability and fashion intersect. Style icons such as Selma Blair have shown that changing health conditions need not limit sartorial statements, and coveted brands like Collina Strada have made wheelchair models a staple of their runways. While these representation benchmarks show the progress we have made, they also remind us of how far we need to go. Ultimately, the widespread lack of accessibility in high fashion spaces forces us to ask ourselves some tough questions. For example, who really owns this industry? And why should it belong to anyone?

At Fashion Week, Bri Scalesse wants to see things change for people with disabilities. “We’ve been, by and large, largely excluded from fashion for too long,” she says. “We are some of the most creative and adaptable people out there, and we deserve more space on and off the track.”

Cory E. Barnes

The author Cory E. Barnes