Is Fashion Fair to People With Disabilities?

As with any other aspect of diversity in fashion, there’s more to be done in adequately including people with disabilities.

That was the consensus of a panel discussion at the Fairchild Media Group Diversity Forum last week titled, “Is Fashion Fair to People with Disabilities?” that featured Francesco Clark, chief executive officer and founder of Clark’s Botanicals Skincare; Aaron Rose Philip, a model managed by Community New York; Mindy Scheier, chief executive officer and founder of Gamut Management and Runway of Dreams Foundation, and Dana Zumbo, business development manager of Zappos Adaptive.

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As many as 61 million adults in the U.S. have a disability, which is a quarter of the adult population. And 3.7 percent of adults have difficulty getting dressed, though adaptable apparel remains challenging to come by.

Zappos Adaptive, for one, is trying to have an impact in the area. The company launched the Zappos Adaptive shopping experience in 2017, and has created content around its numerous brands with offerings for people with disabilities.

“It’s our responsibility as a retailer to provide options so everyone has the opportunity to express themselves through fashion,” Zumbo said. Already, Zappos has made progress with its Ugg Universal footwear collection and recently launched a Sorel Universal footwear collection. “There’s so much more work to be done, we need more brands, more companies, organizations and people who are part of changing the conversation around disability, inclusion and fashion.”

Because, as Clark, of his namesake botanicals skin care brand, pointed out, “Your life can change in the blink of an eye.” A diving accident at the age of 24 left Clark paralyzed from the neck down. “Just because you have a disability does not necessarily mean you were born that way. Being inclusive for everybody makes it better for all of us because your life can change,” he said.

Previously a fashion assistant at Harper’s Bazaar, he then had to adjust to life in a wheelchair. “While I was literally on life support in the ICU…it made me think to myself and really question, ‘What does it mean to be a person and what do you stand for? And what makes you attractive?’” he said.

From his hospital bed in 2009, Clark’s Botanicals was born, and Clark has worked to make the business more accessible for people to work from home or wherever they are and having keen consideration for things like accessible packaging. Especially because accessible package and accessible clothing can make products easier for anyone to use, not just people with disabilities.

For example, he said, there are undergarments for people who have dexterity issues. “It’s not necessarily something you would only benefit from if you have a disability,” he noted, drawing attention to tech like Siri and Alexa, which made things easier both for people with certain disabilities and those without.

To really make progress when it comes to inclusion around disabilities, it’s going to take seeing and listening to people in that community and not “looking through” them as Clark admitted is still often the case.

Philip is one model working to ensure she’s seen and heard. Fashion was an early dream for Philip, a 20-year-old diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a baby, and said, “I was a disabled youth longing to see myself in fashion.” In September, she was part of the Moschino runway show.

“As a disabled child, I always had to advocate for my entire life…to get the things that I wanted,” she said. “Me being who I was, being young and disabled, and also young and trans, I really wanted to be able to find myself in the world. I realized how much I loved fashion.…I never once saw myself in these faces in the magazines and the books that I loved so much.” But she never quite understood fashion’s exclusion. Being from the Bronx, N.Y., Philip said, you step outside and see all types of people who are different creeds, with different physical abilities. “How can it be so reductive? With this question in mind, that was my catalyst to enter the fashion industry.”

Francesco Clark and Dana Zumbo - Credit: Courtesy Photos

Francesco Clark and Dana Zumbo – Credit: Courtesy Photos

Courtesy Photos

And so she took to social media.

Philip started posting pictures with provocative captions, encouraging people to help her reach out to the fashion industry so she could be represented by an agency. Through much hard work and community support, she was signed by Elite Model Management. “When I was signed to that agency when I was 17, I was so emotional. I cried because I was so happy. Being disabled and being young you’re not able to see yourself have these things, and then I got it,” she said.

But her entry and those of a handful of other models with disabilities, doesn’t mean inclusion is where it needs to be. Clients, she said, have a general lack of interest surrounding disabilities. But people with disabilities also wear high fashion clothing, she reminded everyone.

Jeremy Scott at Moschino is one person who gets it, Philip said. “He understands that disabled people are like everybody else. They can see that we have been excluded from the narrative for so long.”

Runway of Dreams wants to ensure people with disabilities have a real place in fashion.

Scheier, who has a son with disabilities, started the nonprofit in 2014 after a career as a fashion designer. At the time, she said, there weren’t any brands in the adaptive market. In 2016, Runway of Dreams partnered with Tommy Hilfiger and developed the first mainstream adaptive line, which is now Tommy Adaptive. Fast forward to earlier this month, Runway of Dreams staged a runway show in Hollywood featuring six mainstream adaptive brands, including Zappos, Tommy Hilfiger, Target, J.C. Penney, Kohl’s (the presenting sponsor) and Stride Rite.

“In a relatively short amount of time, we went from one major brand to six-plus that are committing to be in the fashion industry. It’s a huge step to where we are as an industry,” Scheier said. “But as Dana [Zumbo] mentioned, we have a lot of work to do.…We’re just in the beginning.”

Creating products that work for the population of people with disabilities, “the largest minority on our planet,” Scheier said, similarly to Clark’s point, “will work for everyone.” To help brands know where and how to begin, Scheier founded Gamut Management to provide consultation. Victoria’s Secret recently enlisted Gamut’s aid as it prepares to get into the adaptive space.

The key point to grasp for the journey? According to Scheier, companies need to commit to people with disabilities internally, with products, services and in ad campaigns and marketing. But doing all of that and even launching an adaptive clothing line, and not having executives with disabilities on staff, she said, “isn’t necessarily authentic.”

Authenticity, across the spectrum of diversity, means bringing people from the respective marginalized communities to the table, particularly in C-suite and leadership roles, where diversity and representation always trails off.

“You’re not hiring anybody to be on your team because they have six-pack abs.…You’re not hiring them by the way they look,” Clark said, adding that there’s a talent, curiosity and intellectual hunger among all types of people, and brands would benefit from the embrace.

“If you think about the way we’re speaking right now, you would never even know that I was in a wheelchair,” he said over the virtual event platform. “Accessibility of communication has really made it easier for people who might have had a harder time to travel to an office space in Manhattan or wherever that wasn’t accessible. Now, Zoom and many different forms of communication make it a lot easier.

“You might not even know that somebody has a disability now, but they are over-exceeding any goals you might have had. There’s nothing disabling about somebody who’s talented. There’s no handicap in doing that,” Clark continued. “In fact, it adds to your team and makes everything better and stronger. And the whole mission grows in including different types of people and everybody really.”

The pandemic, Zappos’ Zumbo added, “opened our eyes up to work with anybody across the globe.”


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