The Paradox of Diversity in Fashion


‘FTL Moda’ has just been celebrating the launch of a new Midtown Manhattan showroom, and kicking off Autumn/Winter 2016 during its runway presentation of international designers at the New York Fashion Week on February 15th.

Celebrating its 10th year anniversary, ‘FTL Moda’ is featuring model Madeline Stuart, an 18-year-old Australian who has down syndrome, Jack Eyers, nominated Man of the Year by Men’s Health Magazine, Rebekah Marine, the bionic model, and Shaholly Ayers the first model to walk in NYFW without a prosthesis. A recent Facebook post of Stuart says: “I hope through modeling I can change societies view of people with disabilities, exposure to creating awareness, acceptance and inclusion.”


Already in 2015 models in wheelchairs and the world’s first male amputee hit the catwalk at New York Fashion Week, Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy, was signed to IMG Models and has been announced as the face of cosmetics brand ‘GlossyGirl’. Designer, Takafumi Tsuruta, called upon the presence of an amazing line-up of Paralympic athletes, blind models and models with prosthetic limbs to showcase his newest creations for Tenbo. The ‘FTL Moda’ show in 2015 has been praised for empowering people with disabilities and further diversifying the Fashion Week runways. While ‘FTL Moda’ is embracing disabled models, the fashion industry still struggles with diversity on its runways. Greater diversity in modeling is a demand that isn’t going anywhere, and is greatly overdue. The handful of examples of disabled fashion models is a drop in the ocean of a multibillion-pound global industry.

Ignored by many high-profile designers and clothing brands, disabled models have been forced to take the initiative in pushing for greater acknowledgement of their abilities. The fashion industry still has a very precise, exacting and unwavering view of beauty: a model must be extremely slim, tall and physically flawless, leaving disability largely ignored by the mainstream. However disabled people make up nearly 20 per cent of the UK population. The failure to incorporate a decent proportion of disabled models into the mainstream shows the industry is morally defunct.

“There has been some increase recently, but it often seems tokenistic”, says Cat Smith, a doctoral researcher at the London College of Fashion, who examines the relationship between disability, clothing, fashion and identity for women with mobility impairments. “A disabled model at fashion week is heralded as groundbreaking and there are column inches generated from their inclusion, but there is little follow-up to this, we still do not see wider inclusion or visibility in terms of appearances in advertisements or editorials.”

According to Smith the biggest misconception when it comes to disability in fashion is that many people do not perceive disabled people as being interested in clothing, or making themselves look and feel good. She says there is an assumption that their lives are a never-ending misery when in reality disabled people take as much, or as little, pleasure in their lives and appearances as non-disabled people. “There is also a belief in society that disability is inherently ugly. A common phrase said to disabled women is that they’re pretty for a disabled girl, which reinforces the idea. Disabled people can be confident, can be beautiful, capable, sexy and sexual, without having to exist within non-disabled norms,” Smith stated, continuing: “Research has shown that consumers can react positively to a variety of body types and wish to see a wider range of people reflected in fashion media. Not reflecting this is just elitism and laziness.”


Gemma Flanagan is a fashion model with Guillain-Barré syndrome. She is ambassador for model agency ‘Models of Diversity’, a UK-based nonprofit devoted to greater diversity in fashion modeling around the world. Flanagan told Zero Magazine: “Why should we continue to discriminate against individuals for something that is totally uncontrollable. There was a major taboo when the first plus size model came on the scene. The same happened when the first model of colour took to the runways. Yet that is now considered the norm, if ethnicities and sizes are represented, why not disabilities.”

Flanagan believes that in a lot of ways disability is still shown in a one off way, and not as a staple within the industry as it should be. “Models like myself have been used by brands for campaigns as a way of promotion for themselves and also sometimes so they can tick the diversity box and say disability has been represent by them. More often than not we are also unpaid, yet we work as hard if not harder to prove ourselves as anyone else. As models we are not a novelty or a publicity stunt.”

Countries like the US and Japan are much more diverse than the UK when it comes to fashion. London fashion week casting is still not being offered to disabled models.

Hayley Eszti, fashion model with ‘POTS’, explains that model agencies need more disabled models on their books for a better chance at them being cast and the brands need to be willing to cast them. Social media had a major impact on Eszti: “It has been a big help. It gives disabled people a voice and a chance to speak out. This is so important, especially for those whose disability means they find it difficult to get out in society. It’s incredibly powerful and I believe really has the potential to promote change.”

Researcher and blogger, Smith, points out that high-end fashion publications need to stop using disability as a shortcut for edginess or controversy, as seen in the recent Interview shoot with Kylie Jenner in a wheelchair. “Real change will come when disabled models aren’t wheeled out once a year to make everyone feel good about themselves, and are instead included in ways that don’t simply generate click-bait articles. Fashion is a business, it’s purpose is to generate money and that makes people nervous about changing things, but if one brand or designer can demonstrate that disabled models can fit into this business model, others will hopefully follow suit.”


The inclusion of disabled models at the ‘FTL Moda’ Fashion show is refreshing, however, people with disabilities are still severely underrepresented. One can still hope that others in the fashion world will follow suit and promote diversity and representation of people from different walks of life, including those with disabilities.

Let us know how you feel about diversity within the fashion industry by commenting below, on our Facebook page. If you believe that disabilities should be shown more, why not sign this petition?


Words: Toyah Marondel

Hashtags #disabilityfight4fashionright, #adinclusion, #model, #DisabilityBeauty, #nyfw, #fashion, #tfl

Picture sources:

Image 1, 10, 11: TFL Moda

Image 9: Ambassador of Models of Diversity: Gemma Flanagan


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