As fashion month draws to a close, we've observed both familiar and fresh faces grace the runways in New York and Paris. From the return of the '90s supers to the first truly size-diverse shows of Addition Elle and Torrid, it seemed that this season's designers were approaching a frontier the industry had stereotypically sidestepped—that is, inclusivity.
But there was one formerly acknowledged segment that went missing during the recent shows. Models with disabilities were nowhere to be found despite recent years fostering the movement toward better runway representation for people in wheelchairs, wearing prosthetics and the like. Last NYFW alone, Italian fashion company FTL Moda recruited congenital amputee Shaholly Ayers as well as Madeline Stuart, a model with Down syndrome, compelling the crowd to rise in applause and approval, while body-positive clothing line SmartGlamour made headlines through the racial, gender and ability diversity found on its spring catwalk. Even Tommy Hilfiger himself partnered with Runway of Dreams to launch an adaptive children's collection, becoming the first major American designer to do so.
However, when we consider that 53 million Americans (that's one in five) live with a disability, the sad reality is that a tremendous number continue to be marginalized, and industry leaders are understandably hesitant to expand into formerly uncharted territory for fear of catering to a niche market and ultimately receiving low returns on investment. "Disability might have felt as though it dropped off, but then again you're walking a fine line," CFDA awardee and fashion designer Lucy Jones said. "If you're going to have more disability visibility, you actually have to show that it's not just a PR campaign to you, and you're actually very involved and committed to designing more inclusively."
"It's one thing to have a runway model in a wheelchair, and it's another to sell something they can actually wear."
Take Lucy, for instance. The Parsons School of Design prodigy was named to Forbes's 30 Under 30 last year through Seated Design, a collection created exclusively for the disabled. With modular arrangements like zippers down arms and magnets at hard-to-reach body parts, she sought "a world designed for all"—a statement that became the crux of her new NYC-based fashion house, Ffora, which focuses on accessories made through innovation that currently doesn't exist in the world. (We'll have to circle back when Lucy debuts her mobility-friendly line within the next few months.)
It's the same concept that's become the driving force for Open Style Lab's summer program, which employs Parsons students who outfit clients of different disabilities with performance wear that maintains a fashion-forward aesthetic. "We look at it not as adaptive wear but rather cutting-edge technology that is both functional yet stylish," executive director Grace Jun said. "What we are doing and trying to communicate is that universal design or design centered around those who have disabilities or injuries can be edgy and transformative and pushes the boundaries of innovation in health and tech spaces."
The final product is quite phenomenal: Through the applications of sensors on customized garments, Lucy and OSL have successfully bridged the gap between fashion and science. But they're still relatively small—like adaptive clothing pioneer MagnaReady, which has licensed its patented magnetic closure system to LF Americas yet remains a minor player in the industry. To founder Maura Horton, who's been in the business for more than a decade, fashion giants fall short when they parade people with disabilities on the runway yet fail to offer designs that work with their models' figures. "We still have to be authentic to their needs, to their disabilities, to their callouts, actually serving them," she said. "It's one thing to have a runway model in a wheelchair, and it's another to sell something they can actually wear."
Think to the beginnings of the age- and body-positive movements, which have since gained enough traction that beauty campaigns, magazine covers and fashion shows are dedicated to just their demographic. It was a long and winding road, but there's no doubt we're moving closer toward a more inclusive world. Truly it's only a matter of time before adaptive collections also become mainstream—and we learn to accept it as not a trend but a lifestyle. "I hope that's where we go," Maura said. "I think we've made great strides and that we'll continue to push the market to help people."