woman riding wheelchair near trees

Gucci’s recent beauty campaign featuring Ellie Goldstein (a model with Down’s syndrome) was a huge success. Campaigners warn that they still face a difficult battle to make fashion more accessible for people with disabilities.

“In a world where beauty standards are increasingly narrowed, you need to be young and thin. Alexander McQueen complained in 1998, when he guest edited Dazed & Confused.”

A 14-page fashion editorial dedicated to models with disabilities was included in the issue. Even though newspapers reported that the disability-diversity photoshoot had “dismantled one of the last bastions for body fascism”, little has changed. Is the fashion industry finally paying attention to McQueen’s remarkable recognition two decades ago?

It is becoming more difficult to believe that diversity doesn’t sell. Earlier this summer, .Gucci .unveiled its latest mascara campaign, starring Ellie Goldstein, an 18-year-old model with Down’s syndrome. The reaction was overwhelming. The Instagram post was compared to the beautiful, able-bodied beauty ideals. It received 850k likes, ten times more than Gucci’s average post.

Model Ellie Goldstein posing for Gucci Photograph: Photographer @davidpdhyde Vogue x Gucci

Goldstein’s sight with a Gucci Mascara L’Obscur raven flick, offset by this season’s 70s-style turquoise-encrusted dress, was more than a promotion for long, luscious lashes. It was a new rallying cry against archaic aesthetic ideals. It dispelled all objections to inclusivity with ease – it was, according to the Italian brand, their most loved post EVER.

David PD Hyde, a photographer, was selected to photograph Goldstein. Hyde is signed with Zebedee Management in the UK, which represents models with visual impairments and disabilities. Hyde states that the project is about accepting beauty in all its forms. He confirms that the shoot was a success because half of the participants had disabilities. The published images have a sensitive representation that is authentic and rare.

This campaign is coming at a time where disabled models are more visible than ever. Jillian Mercado has been featured in British Vogue’s pages recently.

Research shows that only 20% of UK ads feature minorities. The exclusion of disabled representation is even more pronounced. Only 0.06% of UK adverts feature disabled people, while a fifth of the population of the UK is disabled.

Laura Johnson, Zebedee Management director, says that the Gucci campaign will be the tipping point in an inclusive fashion revolution. She is a qualified social worker and has worked with children and vulnerable adults. With the goal of providing more opportunities for people with disabilities, she founded the agency along with Zoe Proctor, her sister-in law.

Zebedee was founded in 2017 and has since built a loyal client base. They have a diverse client base, ranging from high-street retailers like H&M to luxury womenswear brand Teatum Jones. “We go from feeling fantastic optimism to frustration and disappointment when bookings stop coming in. Johnson says that progress can sometimes feel painfully slow.

It is difficult to win Fashion Month. Zebedee has never been able to secure bookings for London Fashion Week in the past, despite repeatedly calling designers, brands, and casting teams. Johnson admits that this is disappointing. Johnson believes they may be worried about practicalities. “I don’t really know.”

The Fashion Spot’s Runway Diversity Report tracks fashion week inclusivity every season. It has seen an increase in diversity across all racial and ethnic groups, but it does not mention disability. Simply put, there is very little to report. This is a sign of the widespread lack of models with disabilities on the catwalk.

Louise Dyson says that twenty-six years ago there weren’t any disabled models in mainstream media. Dyson, the founder of an established modeling agency, was first approached by a wheelchair manufacturer looking for a disabled model to advertise its products. In 1994, there weren’t many professional disabled models. This prompted a nationwide search for suitable candidates. The contest, called Sunrise Model in a Million, saw 16 finalists compete for a modeling contract. It was judged by a panel made up of celebrities, fashion editors, photographers, and celebrities. The models quickly became a news story worldwide, sparking conversations about the lack of representation of disabled people in fashion.

Dyson, who had already created VisABLE, a talent agency for actors, presenters, and models with disabilities, continued to build on the momentum. It was difficult at first to translate the buzz into work. “Despite receiving a warm reception from everyone, and them agreeing it was important to embrace diversity, they refused to offer any bookings when I met with my industry contacts to promote VisABLE model.

The misconception that models with disabilities can’t participate in photoshoots is one of the biggest barriers to casting. This is not true. Dyson says that booking a disabled model is the same as booking any other model. “Wherever necessary, our highly-professional models will take their assistants and the photographer can continue with their job without any worries.”

woman riding wheelchair near trees

Johnson agrees that clients only need to make minor adjustments to ensure the work environment is comfortable. Casting venues may not be accessible to wheelchair users. If organisers refuse to provide alternatives, models lose their work. “In the future, the industry will become more inclusive and there’ll less need us. However, at present, it’s very difficult to get brands to book disabled models.”

Do agencies like Zebedee have the potential to segregate disabled models? Kelly Knox, who has signed to MiLK Model Management, says that disability is the only minor group where it is possible to segregate. Knox was born without her lower left arm. She is one of only a few visually impaired models to be signed to mainstream agencies. Others include Jillian Mercado or Aaron Philip.

Knox is a big fan of the agency’s inclusiveness, but starting her career in modeling required a lot of resilience. “I was told that I would get more work if my prosthetic arm was on. It was so hurtful and ableist to tell me that I would only be accepted into the industry if my appearance is ‘normal’.

Caryn Franklin, a fashion commentator, says that “Standard agencies had historically shown a woeful duty to their models.” “An agency that values body differences is better placed to advocate for members with special needs.”

Despite the progress made, there is still criticism of the fashion industry’s underrepresentation for marginalized perspectives. The next frontier is disability. Gucci’s campaign proved that fashion is open to everyone when it opens up.