Fashioned for Everyone: A NYFW Event Shows the Beauty in Disability

Fashioned for Everyone: A NYFW Event Shows the Beauty in Disability

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Shaholly Ayers is a professional model who was born without a right hand.

In the Western fashion world, beauty standards still cling tight to the size zero frames that slink across high-end catwalks. However, the modern call for diversity leaves many consumers wanting more—different races and faces, different physiques and gender identities. American society wants to see more of itself in all shapes and colors because to value diversity is to speak for all of its beauty.

Last week, the gossip about New York Fashion Week bubbled around the controversy: “Will we (finally) have a post-gender, post-racial runway?” This Fall, Italian fashion group, FTL MODA sought to tackle that question and much more.

For the 3rd time last Sunday, September 13, FTL MODA joined forces with Global Disability Inclusion, a consulting firm that provides programs for businesses to include people with disabilities in the office and the marketplace. Together these companies hoped to stage a fashion show that celebrated both the able-bodied the physically afflicted.

“We don’t see a lot of really strong positive images in the marketplace for people with disabilities,” said Meg O’Connell, the Co-Founder of Global Disability Inclusion. “We want to join FTL MODA and show that disability and beauty are not mutually exclusive.”

The two companies also wanted to show the fashion industry the economic potential of including people with disabilities. According to reports from Global Disability Inclusion, the American disability community (about 1/5 of the country’s population) possesses $225 billion in spendable income. Just like any other diversity group, they want to see themselves in marketing and advertising campaigns.

In today’s discussion about diversity, disability is often missing from the picture. However, O’Connell reminds us that “disability is diversity.” “It’s no different than if I’m a redhead and you’re a blond,” she said. “It doesn’t define who you are.”

Yet the previews for FTL MODA’s #FashionFreeFromConfines featured models like a minted coin collection. There’s Rebekah Marine the “Bionic Model,” Shaholly Ayers the Disabled Model who was born without a right hand. There’s Leslie Irby in a wheelchair and recent sensation Madeline Stuart, the first professional model with Down Syndrome. In an industry now flooding with “firsts” and venerated exceptionalism, it’s difficult to avoid tokenization. The question was: would FTL MODA and its designers show off their models like limited edition accessories?

O’Connell recognized this challenge and stressed that even though individualism is hot at the casting calls, she has got a lot of work ahead of her. “There’s still a long, long way to go because it is still the exception and not the norm, “ said O’Connell. “There are still not enough people of color in the fashion industry, but it is certainly better than it was ten years ago. I think we will slowly see that shift of including models with disabilities in more frequent shows and broader shows with some of the big name designers.” This New York Fashion Week Event was just another step towards that cultural shift.

Standing outside Grand Central, painted patrons dressed to the nines braved the drizzle as they waited to enter Vanderbilt Hall. A young African American man from Orlando, Florida held the lapels of his sport coat and rocked back and forth onto his toes. Kevin Warren, 29, couldn’t wait to see his wife, Mikaya (also 29), walk on that grand stage.

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Mikaya Warren walks the runway.

Mikaya has “triumphed through,” as Kevin liked to put it, sickle cell anemia and alopecia. Sickle cell anemia is a disease that causes red blood cells to distort and break down, and alopecia causes permanent baldness. Despite her physical afflictions, Mikaya is the mother of four and the founder of a non-profit organization called, “My B.A.L.D. (Bold Alluring Laudable Distinctiveness) is Beautiful.” Her mission is to support women who struggle with hair loss and show them that they too are beautiful.

As a kid, Mikaya was always into fashion. She flipped though magazines and put on fashion shows for her parents. Because of her love for performance and beauty, she dreamed of being a model. However, since she was 12 years old Mikaya struggled with her body. She was told she would never make it as a model and instead pursued a career as a makeup artist and model coach. Then two months before the show, after randomly posting a few photos of herself on Facebook, she received a comment from the one of the show’s recruiters: “Walk for us, NYFW, Spring Collection 2016.”

Kevin beamed through his sunglasses. “I’m so proud of her,” he said. “I’ve been documenting the whole thing and she cried when she first walked into Grand Central Station for the first time. She’s my superhero.”

Inside the venue, excited chatter bounced off the acoustic marble of the hall as paparazzi buzzed around Drew Barrymore in the front row. When the techno music started, everyone sat tall in their seats, ready to judge the latest Spring collections. The runway showcased the classy jungle prints of Carmen Steffens, the hip and futuristic cuts of Alexandra Frida, the aquatic-inspired garments of Hendrik Vermeulen Couture and more. The designs were so captivating and the models so diverse in race, in age and in size that if you weren’t carefully looking you could easily miss who was handicapped and who was not.

Little person and motivational speaker Becky Curran was amazed at the show’s fluidity. “It was really nice how they subtly included disability and they were just a part of the show,” she said. “It wasn’t like a big spectacle. They were meant to be there and supposed to be there.” Mikaya, flecked in gold paint, draped in glittering lace, shared the runway with supermodels Adriana Lima and Toni Garrn. Model Shaholly Ayers ripped off her prosthetic arm and shot the photographers a defiant stare.

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Madeline Stuart walks with her mermen.

Then suddenly, the audience rose and craned their iPhones over one another to capture the night’s defining moment: Madeline Stuart, the second model with Down Syndrome to ever walk Fashion Week, emerged with two mermen at each arm. When she reached the end of the runway she briefly dismissed her ushers and struck a pose for the cameras. She soon returned in a lavish gown that glowed like pearls. She cracked the “Blue Steel” façade of model protocol with her infectious laughter. Some people in the audience were lucky enough to receive her high-fives. On her final run, Madeline walked with her two designers wearing a black t-shirt that read, “I am NYFW.” Her performance garnered applause and a tearful standing ovation.

That night was a historic moment for the fashion industry. People left the hall with new hope and inspiration. “These ladies are amazing,” said Kevin. “They really have a story. They’re really out there for triumph.”

The next morning, Mikaya and Kevin tried to relive the experience in their hotel room. They re-watched video and clicked through photos of the moments they would never forget. “This is a dream come true for me,” Mikaya said over the phone. “I’ve always wanted to be a model in this light.”

She said she doesn’t know what will come next for her but she is going to continue to empower women through her image and experiences. “That’s my main mission in life,” she said. With more models like Mikaya hitting the runway, and with more collaboration between companies like FLT MODA and Global Disability Inclusion, maybe the fashion industry will continue to shift the mold and bend towards all the narratives of human life.

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