How can London Fashion Week better cater to people with disabilities? Nell speaks with ex-Paralympian and activist Louise Hunt Skelley, model Caitlin Holford, and fashion influencer Ellie Mullis for answers.

Growing up – fashion seemed only to be for the chosen few. This was no better seen than in the exclusivity of London Fashion Week. Twice a year, only the elite group would receive highly coveted invites to attend shows and parties in the capital. The season’s trends and new styles would then be accepted by everyone. This was part of the reason why high fashion was so lucrative. Its exclusivity made it all the more desirable.

This ‘Devil Wears Prada’ image of fashion is largely outdated in 2022, as fashion houses have responded to wider societal pressures to become more conscious and egalitarian businesses. With the rise of social media, power has been passed to the people to, rightfully, criticise brands and high-fashion magazines for excluding groups from the industry. However, even with the move towards positive change, the disabled community are still fighting for their place in the fashion world. Invites themselves are still hard to come by and shows often are not well-equipped to be accessible for people with disabilities.

Since the COVID pandemic, there have been some moves to rectify this. It is now possible for anyone with WiFi to have front-row access to one of the most important fashion events in the world. I was delighted to see that LFW continued to offer a hybrid schedule this year, following suit with most sectors that have dramatically changed their way of working since the pandemic. This has better affected the disabled community, and whilst it is slightly frustrating that these changes were always possible before, it has made it more apparent that major industries can adapt and open their (digital) doors to make events more accessible for everyone.

I wanted to know precisely how digital schedules in the industry are beneficial and what LFW could do better to build upon this change. To find answers, I reached out to these three amazing women who kindly agreed to share their views on this topic and their experiences with the fashion industry.

Louise Hunt Skelley recently retired from her successful career as an elite wheelchair racer and tennis player and is now self-employed, working across various industries, including mentoring and public speaking. Her biggest drive throughout her career has been to change perspectives and stereotypes and make the world a “more accessible, brighter place”. Since retiring, she has had a variety of opportunities to make this a reality, including modelling in fashion shows hosted by London Represents and Surrey Fashion Week.

Since Caitlin Holford was a teenager, she aspired to model but never felt that she would be welcomed by an industry that only favoured women fitting a conventional model image. However, after striking up a friendship with the founder of Chamiah Dewey, the UK’s first fashion brand catering to people of short stature, she made that dream a reality. This LFW, Caitlin walked her  first-ever show for the brand, and it has since made waves in the fashion industry. She hopes that this will pave the way for more opportunities to model. Outside of fashion, Caitlin has attended events for Restricted Growth Society and Little People UK with Chamiah.

Ellie Mullis is a digital creator and style influencer using her platform to spread awareness about chronic illness. She has always been passionate about fashion and style but never saw fashion influencers with disabilities growing up. For this reason, Ellie is looking to change perceptions of people who use wheelchairs by sharing her story – and amazing style – with the world. She looks to challenge the prejudice “to look away from those with mobility aids as if it’s something to hide”.

After getting to know a bit about our interviewees, I discussed the importance of events like LFW offering hybrid fashion shows. As Louise succinctly put it, “There are so many accessibility challenges that are easy fixes, and that is one of them.”

There is no excuse. Fashion is known to be one of the fastest-moving industries there is and giving everyone access to live shows allows more people to experience these events as they happen. Ellie said, “the chronically ill and disabled community is full of vibrant, creative people who deserve to be seen andheard”. As one of the most dynamic art forms, we need to hear the opinions of everybody, not just those with the time, funds and ability to attend in-person shows.

Ellie also made the excellent point that:

“It’s a chance for the brand to get to be creative; to make the experience just as much for those at home as those in person. We are so lucky to have the range of technology that we do in this day & age; it’s a chance to really take advantage of that.”

This idea is an important one as creating a hybrid schedule is not just a way to make shows more accessible for people. As shown in Hanifa’s 2020 virtual show featuring 3D models, digital shows have heralded cutting-edge, exciting ways to display clothing.

The benefits of a hybrid schedule at fashion week are vast, but one of the critical improvements Louise, Caitlin, and Ellie felt the event could make was better representation. When Louise was invited to participate in the London Represents show, she didn’t foresee the personal confidence boost it gave her. “I felt pretty and attractive,” she said. It was rewarding to know that she could show off an outfit well. Public figures like Louise do so much to make the world a better place, so it is sometimes easy to forget that these opportunities can have such a positive effect on self-confidence and image.

Feeling the weight of continuously challenging perspectives and making positive change is exhausting, and it is certainly not selfish to have the opportunity to feel glamorous and empowered.

Caitlin also discussed this point with me, and her experience modelling for Chamiah Dewey should show us that it is a no-brainer for fashion houses to diversify their models.

Being the same age, we passionately discussed being a teenager in the Victoria’s Secret era where the fashion industry offered us no alternative to unattainable beauty ideals. The models in the yearly shows were almost always white, thin, and seemingly without any flaws which added to their ‘angel’ image – they didn’t reflect how real humans looked. Despite this, fashion periodicals were flooded with restrictive diet and exercise tips with the models as their poster girls.

They were simultaneously otherworldly angelic beauties and ‘thinspiration’ for everyday people – a combination that has always led to poor self-esteem for women.

Caitlin had always wanted to model but as a teenager felt that this would never be possible due to her height. When walking for Chamiah Dewey, she thought back to her 16-year-old self and how she would be crying watching herself be a part of a runway show now. “Anybody should have the opportunity to do this, I’d always hoped but never believed it would happen.”

People she hadn’t spoken to since school reached out to show their support and it was affirming to show “normal everyday people” that having this experience is not impossible.

We also briefly discussed some of the negative comments Chamiah Dewey received after the show online. It is astonishing that some commenters still felt that models should look a certain way, questioning why we are now “letting everyone into the fashion industry.” It seems that some are still clinging to the noughties idea that fashion has one beauty standard to adhere to.

It is certainly not cynical to make the argument that better representation— more business for fashion houses. Louise referenced the iconic Pretty Woman scene in our conversation where Vivian is refused service, even though she is willing to spend money in the designer fashion store. By excluding people, companies will lose out on millions. As Ellie put it, “we’re customers too; make sure to include us!” We only need to look at Victoria’s Secret rebrand and efforts to celebrate body diversity to know that the era of high fashion body standards is no longer in.

However, representation for models is not enough for the fashion industry to show that they are truly willing to change. This is not simply a case of ticking boxes, and the best way to avoid this accusation is to properly represent everyone in the organising committees of fashion shows and the boards of fashion brands.

Louise offers consultations with companies with advice on how to better cater to everyone’s needs, so has experienced the benefits of companies seeking help on this issue. Louise met the organisers of Surrey Fashion Week at an event and it only took her mentioning diverse models for them to jump on board and open that conversation. Louise felt completely heard by the organisers and was delighted to model for them.

More brands that make it their mission to cater for all body types should be celebrated at fashion week. Caitlin told me about when she first heard about Chamiah Dewey. She’d rushed to buy a trench coat, something that she’d always wanted, which by chance was named ‘The Caitlin’. ‘I had to get something, it’s made for me’. It was this purchase that led to a friendship between Chamiah and Caitlin and the opportunity to model for the brand at LFW. When these brands are given recognition, LFW brings more attention to these stories. It will encourage big designers to follow suit to create more adaptive accessible clothing.

Ellie said, “I understand how it can feel overwhelming to consider all access needs, especially if you don’t have experience with disabilities” adding later that ‘we need to be considered from the conception of the show’s design’. As a society, we often either forget to be inclusive or are frightened to do or say the wrong thing, but by inviting people in to share their views we can make meaningful changes.

In my discussions with Louise, Ellie and Caitlin my eyes were opened to ways LFW could make the event more accessible.

For example, Louise highlighted the importance of a diverse guest list for in-person shows, as well as hybrid schedules. “Can we invite a broader audience?” she asked, it sends a message that fashion houses want to cater to everyone. Louise also mentioned that we need to make sure that shows include hearing loops and screens for those who are visually impaired.

Ellie shed light on practical changes such as allowing early access and headphones for those with sensitivity to loud music. If fashion houses want to be relatable to everyone, they need to consider every need when organising their shows.

The adaptive fashion market is rapidly increasing, with expectations that it will be worth 350 billion dollars by 2024. However, adaptive clothing from big brands is often very basic and do not cater to those who want to feel on-trend. This issue is often reflected in the plus-size market as well, where it is mostly bland, neutral basics. The joy of experimenting with interesting silhouettes, bold colours and wild patterns should not be limited to a select few.

In my discussions with Louise, Ellie and Cailtin, the running theme was that increasing the accessibility of fashion shows for people with disabilities isn’t special treatment – it benefits everyone. Louise and I discussed labels when it comes to “disabled” versus “able-bodied”.

Everybody has their ‘thing’, their personal challenges, and yes some are bigger than others…but everyone’s got a thing that makes their life challenging…we all have something going on.

In this way, hybrid schedules should be the future. We all face challenges that make in-person events a struggle and opening this up benefits us all. In the same vein, both Caitlin and I were deeply affected by the lack of representation of models in our teenage years. Wouldn’t we all have something to gain from seeing runway shows with more people that look like us?

Finally, Ellie said, “The way you can express yourself through colours, shapes and aesthetics is a gift.”

It should be fun, and the more we get rid of boundaries that prevent people from partaking in fashion the more fun it will be. Making fashion an elitist club is outdated and, quite frankly, boring. We do the world a disservice by excluding people.

To see more of what Nell has written, visit @nelllanne on Instagram.

Louise’s website: louisehunt.co.uk

Caitlin’s Instagram: @caitlinemiliana

Ellie’s Instagram: @ellie_ology

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