Let’s be honest - diversity is a hot topic, and the fashion industry has never been one to stay out of a good conversation. This industry, one that was once dominated by the exclusive couture houses in Paris and their strict code of dress and ideals, is now opening its mind and its doors to new designers, photographers and models of all walks of life. Nevertheless, while much has been done to reduce discrimination such as racism, ageism, and sizeism, the fashion world still leaves a narrow seat for creatives with disabilities, whether they’re behind or in front of the camera. And while all of the aforementioned issues have all widely been highlighted as the leading causes for discrimination on the runway, little is still being said about the subject ableism.
Earlier this year at NYFW, fashion week production company FTL Moda cast a number of models with disabilities, ranging from women in wheelchairs, to prosthetic-wearing amputees. The show featured nineteen year old Madeline Stuart, one of the only people with Down syndrome to ever walk a Fashion Week runway, as well as the self-titled “Bionic model” Rebekah Marine who made her third appearance in the city’s prominent fashion presentations.
Furthermore, with the rise of this much-needed representations of differently-abled models, a handful of editors, designers, and photographers have stepped up their own #diversity game to attract attention to what is considered an ongoing issue of exclusion; speaking of hashtags, social media has played a significant role in the come-up of many of the industry’s hottest creatives, who use outlets like Instagram or Tumblr to put themselves out there and push boundaries of beauty and ability.
Nowadays, the accessibility of social media makes it possible for anyone to become “Instafamous” and model Jillian Mercado (or @jilly_peppa as she’s better known on IG), has successfully proven to us that being among the few models in a wheelchair on the runway doesn’t slow her down. On the contrary, the native New Yorker who was diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy, a group of diseases that entail progressive skeletal muscle weakness, is now one of IMG Models’ most head-turning clients. She has starred in campaigns for Diesel and Nordstrom, and was recently selected as one of the three models to rock concert merchandise for Beyonce’s 2016 Formation World Tour on the singer’s website. Earlier in her career, Mercado’s talents also landed her at the renowned Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, which led to internships at top lifestyle and fashion magazines such as Veranda and Allure.
Another new face of inclusion in fashion is the Brooklyn born, Montreal and Haiti raised Caxmee, who knows a thing or two about what it’s like to overcome obstacles. Following the amputation of her right leg due to a cancer diagnosis at age 14, the model and avid blogger shares her story as she travels the world (she’s already got over 20 countries across 5 continents, plus a backpacking trip through Asia under her belt!) demonstrating to her 55,000 followers on IG that having a colorful prosthetic leg means that you can walk into any situation with endless strength, style, and grace. And thanks to her Tumblr, Instagram, and blogging alter-ego Mama Cax, Caxmee has attracted the attention of numerous fashion blogs and magazines including Refinery 29, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue and many others.
Ultimately, the sole reason why such models are still considered to be unconventional faces on the runway is because the world has long categorized them as outcasts of society, rather than making an effort to highlight the precise traits that make each of them uniquely beautiful. They’ve fought long and hard for their spots on the catwalks and with a little help from social media, these models have successfully transformed their “disability” into the aspect that rightfully challenges our perception and demonstrates their ability to represent and be represented in the fashion industry.