At a memorable London fashion show in 1998, Alexander McQueen sent double-amputee athlete Aimee Mullins down the catwalk wearing a pair of hand-carved wooden prosthetic legs. It was seen as a groundbreaking moment for an industry not renowned for being inclusive.
That was nearly 20 years ago. Today, however, high-profile disabled models are still few and far between, and fashion brands – from high-end to high street – do little to communicate with disabled shoppers. Now one well-known label is hoping to change that. Teatum Jones, which opened this year’s London Fashion Week with a collection inspired by the LBGT community, is setting its sights on people with disabilities and designing a new range specifically for them.
Over the next two months, Catherine Teatum and her co-designer Rob Jones will embed themselves with members of the British Paralympic team. “We want to develop able-bodied and disabled ranges that will cross over,” Jones says.
They plan to film and talk to the athletes about the impact of their disabilities and how fabric makes their limbs feel. The aim is to showcase the collection in London next year, using models with disabilities.
“Our creative drive comes from wanting to tell people’s stories – the stuff that fashion doesn’t normally pay attention to,” says Teatum. “Why isn’t disability being catered for in fashion?”
That’s a question Sophie Morgan, the disabled TV presenter who co-hosted Channel 4’s Paralympics coverage in Rio, would like an answer to. She welcomes the Teatum Jones project but questions whether it will have any major impact.
“Putting people in fashion shows with disabilities feels good on one level, but it still isn’t everyday life,” says Morgan, who has modelled for Stella McCartney.
Morgan was paralysed from the chest down in a car crash when she was 18. Now 31, she has spent much of her adult life campaigning for the high street to try much harder to integrate people with disabilities. Five years ago, frustrated by feeling unwelcome in most mainstream clothes shops, she designed the “mannequal” – a wheelchair for mannequins – and set about trying to sell it to the UK’s biggest retailers.
“I had such a difficult time,” she recalls. “Trying to make people understand that there’s a reason to communicate with people like myself. I was treated really badly.”
Morgan said she did manage to get the mannequal accepted by Debenhams and the Adidas flagship store in Oxford Street, but some of the other big chains would not even consider using it unless they were planning a campaign specifically about disability. “It couldn’t just be put in and integrated because it should be,” she says.
Her Paralympics co-host, former basketball player Ade Adepitan, is similarly baffled by the fashion industry’s lack of interest in disabled people. “I’ve always thought it’s a shame the fashion industry doesn’t really see us as customers – it’s weird because the disabled pound is so strong,” he said. According to the Business Development Forum, 16 million people in Britain have a disability, with a combined purchasing power of around £20bn a year.
Cat Smith, an academic at the London College of Fashion, argues that the purple pound, as it’s known, is not only ignored by fashion brands but by most retailers and organisations. She puts it down to a wider “societal discomfort” with disabled people.
“I’m fairly cynical about how non-disabled people view us, but I’ve been disabled my whole life so I think that cynicism has merit,” she says.
One person uniquely placed to comment on fashion and disability is the photographer and documentary maker Giles Duley, 45, who lost both legs and an arm in Afghanistan five years ago. Duley, now working on a photography project called Legacy of War, which looks at the long-term humanitarian effects of conflict, used to take pictures regularly for glossy magazines such as Vogue, Esquire and GQ. He believes the fashion industry has never been representative of society, but is more an “illusory vision” of what society sees as “perfect”.
“The fashion industry will always go for the common denominator,” Duley says. “They’ve never catered for people who are tall, obese or with disabilities. They just see it in terms of market value.”
He believes, however, that fashion is undergoing some radical changes that will see people with disabilities become more visible. “People expect it, they want fashion to represent society more fairly,” he says.
Teatum and Jones say they are determined it will, while acknowledging that to make disabled fashion more mainstream it will have to be available at accessible prices. Teatum says the label is about to sign a distribution deal with a major high-street retailer. “Definitely, we will want to get them on board with our disabled range,” she says.
Morgan, summing up the feelings of many in the disabled community, hopes they will be successful. “We get plus size, we get petite size. Why don’t we have seating size? I’d love that,” she says.