ZEBEDEE AND THE ‘INCLUSION REVOLUTION

For this issue, Maria Henry interviews Laura Johnson, co-founder of inclusive modelling agency Zebedee.

This month, following on from our livestream talk with Samanta Bullock on the importance of representation during the London Runway Virtual Festival, I had the pleasure of talking to one of the co-founders of Zebedee, Laura Johnson. Founded in 2017 by Laura and her sister-in-law Zoe Proctor, Zebedee is an inclusive talent agency which has aims of bringing people with disabilities and alternative appearances to the forefront of the fashion industry. I sat down with Laura to discuss how the agency began and what she hopes the future of the fashion industry will look like.

Where did the idea of Zebedee come from? 

The agency was co-founded between myself and my sister-in-law Zoe. I went to see her one day and we were essentially just having a chat, putting the world to rights and talking about the lack of disabled people and lack of representation in fashion and advertising and how it was so rubbish! 


We couldn’t believe that in the 21st century this lack of representation was still seen as acceptable. We were just having a general conversation about this and somehow got into discussing if there were even any agencies representing people with disabilities because we didn’t think that there were.


We just started to think that if there’s no agents, how are they even getting in front of clients with opportunities for casting? It sounds cheesy, but it was a lightbulb moment, we started to think “should we set up an agency?” and by the end of our walk we had decided this is what we were going to do! We were brimming with ideas and enthusiasm and we got home and started setting up right away.

We set up a business, we started making contacts, we started emailing and making calls. We started this in March 2017 and by September 2017 we launched. We’d taken six months to try and build some contacts, get a model base sorted, get a website sorted, that sort of thing. We’ve just got busier and busier since then.

How do you recruit models? 

It’s a bit of a mixture. Initially when we set up, we reached out to local disability groups. Organisations, disability press, that sort of thing. Just letting people know about us and we found that people started applying very very quickly. We had one article in one certain publication which was for the disabled community and we had around 1000 applications in a day from that. We also appeared on this This Morning and that created a massive influx of models applying. 
On some occasions we do scout. If we have a specific job from a client and we don’t have a model that is what they need, we’ll post on our social media what we need and see what replies we get.

that truly are inclusive. Especially with the BLM movement, you can’t get away with not being representative in terms of diversity. Disability falls under that category too. Disabled people make up almost 20% of the population, yet they’re represented in only 0.06% of advertising.
In terms of economic argument, the spending power of disabled people in in the UK is £349 billion a year. Worldwide that’s around $1.2 trillion a year. There’s something like £20 million a month on the high street that is not being accessed by disabled people because the high street isn’t catering to them in terms of representation and access. So, there is definitely an economic case for hiring models with disabilities.

It’s great to see that there’s so many people who are seeking these opportunities, people who really want to get themselves out there and be seen!

Exactly! They’ve never had the opportunity before. So, there was a load of people who, you know… had maybe dreamed that this could be an opportunity for them but had no resources to be able to do it.

How accessible are most casting calls and fashion events? Do you think a lack of accessibility made it harder for disabled people to attend castings? 

I think before we existed, probably not. Obviously, we’re very careful about having accessible venues and when we’re liaising with clients, we’ll remind them to have accessible venues.
But you know, London is London and a lot of places are just not accessible – they’re often like basement studios or lofts and they’re just not accessible.
That being said, not all people with disabilities have mobility issues. If you really couldn’t arrange an accessible studio there are still models you could consider – so I wouldn’t let it be something that puts you off hiring a model with a disability.

 On your Instagram you posted about the economic side of diversity within the fashion industry. You mentioned something called “perfection fatigue”, could you talk a little more about what this means?

Perfection fatigue is where for such a long time the public and consumers have become used to seeing models with a very ‘perfect’ look. They have perfect airbrushed skin, are the ‘perfect’ size, and quite frankly, consumers are bored of that now and they see it so often that it doesn’t resonate with them at all. They’re just not interested in that image. There are two sides to it, there’s “perfection fatigue” which is where this one ideal is not of interest to the consumer and it doesn’t click their  buttons in terms of making them want to buy the product. Then there’s also active rebellion against those images. People will see these images and decide to actively rebel against them, choosing not to feel an affinity with that brand or whatever they’re selling because it doesn’t reach them or represent them.

So, by portraying this one ‘ideal’ look, brands are closing themselves off from a large demographic of potential buyers?

Exactly. Consumers now want brands that truly are inclusive. Especially with the BLM movement, you can’t get away with not being representative in terms of diversity. Disability falls under that category too. Disabled people make up almost 20% of the population, yet they’re represented in only 0.06% of advertising.

In terms of economic argument, the spending power of disabled people in in the UK is £349 billion a year. Worldwide that’s around $1.2 trillion a year. There’s something like £20 million a month on the high street that is not being accessed by disabled people because the high street isn’t catering to them in terms of representation and access. So, there is definitely an economic case for hiring models with disabilities.


We argue that we know our models and beautiful and completely able of doing a great job, we know that it is the right thing to do and that we all need to think about our ethics and doing the morally correct thing when it comes to representation. However, in the long and short of it, this world is run by money and this is why we explain to people that there is an economic driving force behind inclusivity as well. It makes economic sense to be inclusive.

Do you think that seeing people with disabilities being represented by big brands helps to reduce stigma around them and normalise them in the eyes of those who may have not been so inclusive in the past?

Oh completely! This is our wider aim; we feel that representation is so important as it not only impacts the industry and our models directly, but it also impacts the wider society in terms of developing people’s awareness and understanding of disability and helping to normalise it. As I mentioned, disabled people make up 20% of the UK population, so there are disabled people walking around you – you just don’t see it in the media.


The personal impact is also huge, all of our models have said that their selfesteem and feelings of self-worth improve massively from being represented.

It is also helpful for parents of children with disabilities. Often, they’ve said that when they had their children it felt like a very lonely place. They didn’t see other children represented, unless you knew someone else with a disability, it wasn’t visible anywhere else – which could make them feel quite alone. So being able to see children with disabilities being represented doing what other children were doing, it would have made those early years a much nicer and less lonely experience

What do you think the fashion industry can do to make itself more accessible for people with disabilities?

I think people worry about the language that they’re using, and they worry about accessibility. First and foremost, don’t let that hold you back. In terms of language, people are usually happy if you try and get it wrong, rather than just excluding them all together. The same with accessibility, don’t let it hold you back, we live in a technology-filled world where other options are possible.  
Especially now with COVID-19 most castings are taking place over Zoom and Skype, so there’s no reason that you can’t find a way to work in an accessible studio or cast online. There’s always an easy solution and if you have any questions or worries you can always contact us, we’re happy to consult with any questions that you may have.  We actually have four steps that we propose people take note of when casting, these are:

  • Remember Disability,when considering diversity. Often when brands are considering diversity, they forget to include disability in that, so remember that disability is included in diversity.
  • Bring Disability to the Table, when working on creative briefs. Remember to include someone with a disability in certain roles.
  • Invite Disabled People to Cast. Just invite them to cast! Try and meet people! Reach out to us so we can provide you with some suggestions. Just consider disabled people as options.
  • If you Believe in Inclusive Casting, Share your Belief in it. Share it with your colleagues and peers and decision makers. We all need to work together to be a driving force for an inclusion revolution.

What do you think the fashion industry will look like in the future? Do you think that we’re making positive moves towards inclusivity now?

I can only hope that things will get more inclusive. I know that year by year we get busier and busier. We’re only in our third year now but we’ve made lots of contacts and continue to get busier as we grow.

It does seem like the industry is becoming more inclusive, but that being said, it is painfully slow. There are so many brands who just don’t have inclusivity on their radar and so many brands who will use disabled people as tokens. They’ll use one disabled model a year to show they’re ‘inclusive’ and that really isn’t acceptable.

It’s difficult because we’ll say we’ll accept tokenism because it’s still an opportunity and we all have to start somewhere. Somebody has to be that first ‘token’ wheelchair user, amputee, person with Down syndrome… whatever it is, somebody has to be that first. However, you have to continue with that – consumers can read straight through it and this can lead to a backlash of people saying, “that’s just tokenism” and not representation, it’s just there to make you look inclusive and sell more products. It really needs to be a part of your company ethos, your brand, and your identity, to be inclusive. 
It’s similar with sustainable fashion, consumers are demanding true sustainability, just as in time consumers will demand true inclusivity. 

If you enjoyed reading this article you can find more of Maria’s work at @mariawriteshere on Twitter. If you’d like to find out more about Zebedee and the amazing work that they do you can find more info on their website at zebedeemanagement.co.uk.

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