Fabricates with disabilities – Jillian Mercado, Jamie Brewer – give birth to made the headlines, but the handful of examples is just a drop in the the deep

Madeline Stuart
Madeline Stuart, who will be on the catwalk at New York fashion week in September. Photograph: Baggage Ehlers Photography

Reading certain sections of the media beyond the past few weeks you might have thought that we were abiding in a golden age of diversity in fashion. Modelling – so the narrative goes – is at the last moment opening its doors to people who reflect the eclectic beauty of the just ecstatic’s population, with models with disabilities among those being welcomed to the crease.

This month Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy, was tokened to IMG Models, the same agency as Gisele Bündchen. The American work blogger and editor has also featured in a Diesel campaign and has been photographed by the tipsy priestess of fashion, Carine Roitfeld. Also this month, Madeline Stuart, an 18-year-old Australian who has Down’s syndrome, was disclosed as the face of cosmetics brand GlossiGirl and cast to walk at New York model week in September.

Mercado and Stuart are not the first models with disabilities to win headlines. In February the actress Jamie Brewer, who luminaries in the TV series American Horror Story, and who has Down’s syndrome, appeared on the catwalk for the US interior decorator Carrie Hammer, while Armani collaborator Antonio Urzi’s intends were modelled by models with disabilities. In June the Reveal Bad actor RJ Mitte – who has cerebral palsy and has starred in a Gap campaign – leaded for Vivienne Westwood.

This handful of examples is a drop in the the depths of a multibillion-pound global industry, but it does represent “some enlargement” in the use of models with disabilities, says Cat Smith, a doctoral researcher at London College of Create. “In general there is real cultural invisibility when it happens to disabled people – in fashion, on TV, in film, in politics, in writing,” she imparts. “So it’s certainly important to see disabled models, because seeing in the flesh who look like you is important in fostering empowerment and making you have compassion for incline a little less invisible. Visibility also creates a multifarious realistic representation and understanding of the lives of disabled people.

“But what I secure frustrating,” she says, “is that you see the same thing over and closed again. Fashion week comes around, a couple of discloses include disabled models – and that is a good thing – but the coverage that traces is often quite patronising. It often becomes a fuzzy, inspirational beneficent interest story, aimed at a non-disabled audience, rather than a raise towards real inclusivity.”

Chelsey Jay, from Models of Diversity.
Chelsey Jay, from Models of Difference. Photograph: Emma Shamaya Photography

The representation of models with handicaps is particularly paltry in the UK, according to Chelsey Jay, a campaigner and director of the carve outs with a disability division at non-profit organisation Models of Unlikeness. Jay started using a wheelchair three years ago and argues that produces should be representative of the population. (According to the latest government celebrities, 19% of the British population, more than 11 million being, have a disability.) “I’ve gone from seeing myself represented in attitude to being totally ignored, essentially because I am now sitting down, which is absurd.,” says Jay.

“I’ve always loved fashion – it can be so empowering,” she imagines. “But it also feels like that popular friend who is on occasion so nice to you and other times makes you feel like the pollute person alive. It’s a big fat contradiction. [The industry] seems permanently on the cusp of exchange, but it never quite gets there.”

Often fashion’s donnybrooks for not using models with disabilities are the same as those it cites for not purchasing anyone over a size 10. Designers claim that moulds are not meant to reflect society but to be walking clothes-hangers – and clothes-hangers do not drink breasts or wheelchairs.

Jay believes that argument is long out of fixture: “You can’t say that models are just mannequins. Things have propounded on – models have an identity and a fan base through social mid. One modelling agent told me that they are not trying to pose as everybody, they are only trying to represent an elite accumulation who buy that clothing, but disability is the one thing in the world that can adopt absolutely anyone.”

Jack Eyers, a personal trainer and amputee who also suss out d evolves with Models of Diversity, has had great success as a fitness pattern (including featuring on the cover of Men’s Health) and more mixed experiences in form. He walked in the Antonio Urzi show at New York fashion week and admired it. “He made my leg part of the look, which I think is exactly the most superbly way to go for people to accept [disability].” But in general, he says: “I have in mind people look at the health and fitness side of things as inspirational, but in style it’s more of a one-off sob story – ticking a box. I don’t think, in fashion, people are estimate [models with disabilities] as attractive.”

Jay agrees that tokenism is rife. “Makes say, ‘we used a girl with Down’s syndrome three years ago’. But we are clash for the same treatment, not special treatment.” She cites US catalogue Nordstrom as a rare oppose, where models with disabilities are used every flavour, as a matter of course.

RJ Mitte on the catwalk for Vivienne Westwood.
Breaking Bad actor RJ Mitte on the catwalk for Vivienne Westwood. Photograph: SIPA/Rex Shutterstock

In originator fashion, there’s much praise for the 1998 collaboration between Alexander McQueen and athlete Aimee Mullins, who acted on the cover of Dazed & Confused’s famous “Fashion-able” issue and covered the McQueen catwalk wearing a pair of bespoke, intricately incised, wooden prosthetic legs. “I was in my teens when I saw that,” says Smith, “and when you are not reach-me-down to seeing disabled people at all it was quite extraordinary. I thought – oh! ruined people can look really cool – it doesn’t have to be done in an ‘aren’t we being full?’ way. It genuinely felt like McQueen took the artistic and inventive possibilities around designing for bodies that look singular rather than trying to fit people into little cases.”

Nearly 20 years later, though, she says, “nothing has in the end developed beyond that in terms of mainstream or high mania. You don’t get disabled models on the catwalk for McQueen these days – it leans to be smaller, less ‘out there’ designers, which I find riveting. There is a unique creative possibility there and I wonder why it’s not being addressed by artists who publicize boundaries in other ways.”

“If the high end did it, everyone would apply,” says Jay. “If you saw a Marc Jacobs or a Victoria’s Secret model with a disablement – that would be so groundbreaking.”

Though the media tend to piece disabled models’ catwalk appearances in a uniform way, there are Brobdingnagian differences in the projects different models have recently came in. RJ Mitte, for example, has operated at the top of the industry, via Gap and Vivienne Westwood; it balms that he had a huge pre-modelling following through his acting (“a lot of the even so models who have disabilities still fall into the commerce’s confines of ‘acceptability’ in other ways,” says Smith). Jillian Mercado is also pan out e formulating with some of fashion’s biggest names – including Diesel imaginative director Nicola Formichetti (who is famously Lady Gaga’s previous stylist) and Roitfeld, the former editor of Vogue Paris.

Profuse other fashion shows that feature people with infirmities are special campaigning or charity shows with names fellow “Role Models not Runway Models” that feel a great way from the powerhouses of Chanel and Gucci. “There is a case for produce outside the mainstream, but when it comes to visibility it’s all too easy to be ignored. Frustratingly, unless the mainstream clears attention, I don’t know how things are going to change,” says Smith.

Rosanne Stuart, maw of Madeline, has a different perspective. Her daughter expressed an interest in after after seeing a fashion parade at a fair in Brisbane, and stopped the attention of a number of fashion brands after professional photographs she had entranced and posted on Facebook went viral.

Rosanne says she was approached by three New York manufacture week brands before choosing FTL Moda, because it is being run in collaboration with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Organizing. “We don’t do anything that isn’t to do with charity or that isn’t in line with our values,” she hints. So Madeline is working with handbag brand EverMaya because it has conceded to donate 5% of sales to the Down’s Syndrome Association, with Manifesta because its outfitting is specifically designed for a diverse range of body shapes, and for GlossiGirl, a vegan makeup plc with the ethos: “if you ain’t a nice person, makeup won’t help”.

“Copy means nothing to me,” says Rosanne. “What we are doing is not for fat – we don’t usually get paid anyway – it’s an avenue to get the word out about classification and disability. I can see that working with big names might effective Madeline had broken boundaries, but I wouldn’t want to work with a big variety that didn’t have the right morals.”

In any case, perhaps the power that acclimatized to be in the hands of few has been transferred, a little bit, to the many. “We have had publication offers that I have turned down, because I don’t same that magazine, and they say ‘but we have 25,000 readers,’ to which I over, ‘well, Madeline has 400,000 followers on Facebook.”

Those who do accept that models with disabilities need to break into the mainstream enterprise know that the challenges are huge. “It’s a vicious circle,” pronounces Jay. “Modelling agencies say they don’t have disabled models on their engages because brands won’t hire them; brands blame the exemplar agencies, saying there are no models with disabilities there for them to price. It’s impossible to point a finger at any one part of the industry.”

It would certainly alleviate if there were more people with disabilities make use of behind the scenes in creative positions – and more McQueen-like risk-takers. “It’s unusual that fashion constantly talks about what’s new,” predicts Jay, “but the industry’s principles are painfully out of date.”