It's an exciting week for disability-inclusive fashion - from chainstore to runway. Two young Australian women featuring in the Target catalogue and in New York Fashion Week.
This week, Target features a young woman with a disability in its catalogue. Robyn Lambird, who uses a wheelchair, models activewear. Above her smiling face, she's quoted: "As a para athlete, I practically live in activewear. That's why I love Target's range - it's got me covered for the who,e day. With plenty of options for working out, and fashionable pieces, that are perfect for busy days in between training sessions."
I chatted with Robyn, who has cerebral palsy, about how modelling for Target makes her feel.
"Oh man, it’s awesome! I’ve been talking about the importance of having more adequate media representation for a while now, so to play apart in that is really cool. For me it’s all about normalising disability, I want to get to a point where it’s commonplace to see people using mobility devices, or with missing limbs, and a whole range of other conditions in our advertising."
Robyn hopes her appearance in the Target catalogue leads to standard inclusion of disabled models.
"We need to get to a point where including disabled models in advertising is standard", she says. She believes companies that pride them on diversity need to reflect that, through representing all types of people - including people with disabilities. Robyn believes representation in advertising will help increase disability's cool factor.
"As a society we also need to change the way we look at disability - a lot of people write the disabled community off straight away as not being trendy or cool. I know models for instance who can’t get casting agents and have been told by them that 'disability isn’t their look'", Robyn laments.
Catia Malaquias , mother to seven year old Julius who has Down syndrome, campaigns for inclusive advertising through Starting with Julius. She agrees with Robyn's take on inclusion changing perceptions of disability.
"Advertising in particular can be extremely powerful as a medium. Ads are pervasive and far reaching – we see ads on our social media, favourite blog, a web page, before a movie or during our favourite TV show – and they are designed to impact our perception of the world around us. For the most part they represent a world without disability and with minimal human diversity and that both reflects and reinforces social exclusion and devaluation of "difference". Inclusive advertising seeks to disrupt that."
Target has regularly featured children with disabilities, but Robyn (and I) would like to see more adults with disabilities included in Target's catalogues.
"It’s kind of crazy to think that 1 in 5 people will experience disability in their lifetime, yet as far as I’m aware I am the first adult with a visible disability to feature in a nationwide advertising campaign of major retail company in Australia. If people don’t see individuals with a range of disabilities in our media, it’s easy for stereotypes to form and for misconceptions to thrive", Robyn says.
Therese Waters from Target's Corporate Affairs team assured me it's not the first time a disabled model has featured in Target's catalogues. "In the 1990’s we featured a model in a wheelchair", she says.
Therese said it's important for Target to reflect Australia's diverse society. "One in five people in Australia have a disability so that needs to be portrayed in our marketing materials", she says.
She told me she hopes that through Target's diverse advertising campaigns, perceptions about people with disabilities are shifted.
The inclusion of disabled in advertising campaigns makes both models and the wider disability community feel valued and represented. "It’s important that our customers know we’re all about making people feel confident about themselves. Our uniqueness should be embraced", Therese says.
While inclusion in fashion advertising is a great start, Robyn also believes the fashion industry needs to make clothes more accessible for people with disabilities.
"There are a few brands out there that design for disabled people and wheelchair users, that I really admire but I’d love to see a little more diversity. I’d really like to see more options for disabled teens and young adults as a lot of accessible clothing is aimed either at children or older people . I love bright colours and wacky prints so if I ever got into designing I’d be sure to incorporate that.
"For me as a wheelchair user it all comes down to how things look when I’m seated, things don’t always fit as nice in the chair. I also find buttons and things like that a little tricky because the dexterity in my hands isn't so great, so that’s always something to consider", she says.
She hopes to model for Zara and G-Star Raw - and I'm sure she will be noticed by those brands and more. She continues to make opportunities happen by telling her story, not through fashion but words - using her blog and Youtube channel () to change people's perceptions of disability.
Robyn isn't the only Australian to rock the fashion world this week.
On Saturday, Madeline Stuart will be modelling in New York Fashion Week. Nineteen year old Madeline has Down syndrome and has been modeling since 2014. She told her Mum Rosanne that she wanted to become a model after attending a fashion show, and after posting professional photos on a public Facebook page, her career took off quickly.
This is her third time at the New York event - perhaps the most high profile of the fashion calendar.
This fashion week, Madeline will model androgynous label Speechless Vulgarity - their clothes are designed to promote self confidence. The label's motto is "Be dope be love be you", which symbolises Madeline's self confidence.
With the help of her mother, Madeline told me what she enjoys about being a model. She loves meeting fantastic people and travelling the world. But it's hard work too, she says. The hours are long and she's on the road all the time. She has some frank advice for other people with disabilities who want to get into the modeling industry.
"If you want to be in the modelling industry you need to be really fit as it is very hard work and very long days. Plus you need to have really good self-esteem as it can be very critical."
The long hours and time away from home is worth it though, for the rush of New York Fashion Week. "I love it, it is my favourite activity, to be there with all the excitement is nothing short of amazing", she told me.
Catia Malaquias believes Madeline's success as a model is valuable for people with Down syndrome and their families, as well as wider society.
"Every time that a person with Down syndrome has the opportunity to participate in public life, they are challenging in a very visible way the cultural exclusion of people with Down syndrome", Catia says.
She believes that the most effective and inclusive representation of people with disabilities in fashion and advertising is featuring us with non-disabled people.
"In many ways, the most effective advertising simply represents people with disability incidentally alongside non-disabled people, as part of our society’s diversity."
However, like me, Catia believes disabled people should be consulted about the way we are represented.
"Fundamentally, people with disability should be represented authentically and the best way to ensure this is for there to be dialogue with people with disability about how they would like to be represented."
Madeline Stuart realises the importance of her work, too.
"I think it is important that everyone is represented in the public eye so when I walk I hope I am showing the world we are all equal. I am so happy to be walking at New York Fashion Week for the third event in a row. I feel that I am now a regular and have made a great change in our industry", Madeline says.
In the week that her own modeling career takes off, Robyn Lambird, also 19, is grateful to see Madeline Stuart walk the runway on the other side of the world. She told me Madeline's inclusion at New York Fashion Week shows other young people with Down syndrome that it's possible to pursue their dreams.
"As a person living with a disability myself, I know how validating it can be to see someone who has experienced similar struggles or who has shared a common identity."
Top picture: an infographic featuring diagonally placed images of Robyn Lambird and Madeline Stuart. Robyn wears pink cap, dark overalls over a print tee shirt, she's smiling and pointing to a Target catalogue. Maddie's photo is black and white, with pink highlight. She has long dark hair, with a black top hat, is smiling, and wearing a black and pink tutu. Black cursive text reads "Aussie models with disabilities rocking the fashion world."
Second picture: Target catalogue featuring two photos of Robyn Lambird. One is of her face and chest, she's smiling and wears a black tee shirt. The other features her in a purple singlet, black pants and she's in a green wheelchair. There's also an image of a non-disabled woman. Heading reads "New season active wear", outfit details and prices, and words from Robyn, quoted above.
Third picture: Julius and his mother Catia. He has brown hair and is making a duck face. She has long brown hair and is smiling widely, cuddling him.
Fourth picture: Madeline Stuart at 2014 New York Fashion Week. She's wearing a cream and metallic strapless gown with lots of peplum layers around the waist, frills on the bottom, and she wears silver face paint.
Fifth picture: Madeline Stuart wearing a black long sleeved top. She has long red hair and she's smiling. Text reads Speechless Vulgarity, and outlines NYFW details.
Sixth picture: Robyn Lambird sits in a wheelchair. She wears a black leather jacket, green top and black jeans. Her short hair is grey, pink and purple. She also has black glasses.
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