I navigated London Fashion Week in a wheelchair – and it didn’t always go smoothly

Niamh with model Kate Grant, Benefit’s new brand ambassador

Last Friday, I found myself sitting front row at the Bora Aksu Autumn/Winter 2019 show at London Fashion Week. It was the first show I had ever attended, so I didn’t know what to expect. Where should I sit? Should I leave my wheelchair around the corner, out of sight? Apparently, the front row was the only area in which my wheelchair could fit. I call things like this “wheelchair perks”.

Unfortunately, not all the shows I attended went so smoothly. At a couple, the accessible seating area was cut down to make more room for reserved seats for friends and family. Due to oversubscription, the Pam Hogg show wasn’t able to squeeze me in, despite my invite. The PR team apologised and offered to send me photos after the show.

I’ve been obsessed with fashion for as long as I can remember. As a child, I willed my tiny feet to grow so I could fit them into a pair of Valentino heels. Yet recently I’ve felt like an outsider within the fashion community because of my disability, which ate away at my coordination and means I have relied on a wheelchair for the last two years, since the age of 19.

The Bora Aksu collection was inspired by the first female astronaut in space, Valentina Tereshkova, and featured layers of ruffles and delicate fabric. I was entranced by the ethereal aesthetic, but couldn’t help thinking that I wouldn’t be able to wear any of the pieces without them getting tangled up in my wheelchair or ruining the shape because I’m always sitting. (Though one advantage of using a wheelchair, however, is that I can wear heels 24/7 and not get achy feet or blisters.)

As I left the show to head to the next venue on my agenda, I got stuck behind a protest for transgender inclusion in the fashion industry. A stranger offered to clear the way for me and the crowd parted before us like the Red Sea; but I cringed as the protesters’ interest turned to me. Still, I laughed and waved as they cheered for my wheelchair. Our circumstances were different, but our wish for diversity and inclusion was the same.

Before taking my “seat” at the Rocky Star show the next day, I was pleasantly surprised when seven other wheelchair users rolled into the accessible seating area – I hadn’t seen another wheelchair user at any of the shows until then. They were all models with Zebedee Management, a talent agency focusing on diversity and inclusion of models with disabilities in the fashion industry. One of the models, Clara Holmes, spoke to me about her desire to see brands using accessible fashion, not just disabled models, in their shows. “It’s a struggle,” she said when I told her about my impostor syndrome as a wheelchair user at Fashion Week. “But you just have to realise there are way more important things when it comes to having style and looking good.”

The fashion industry isn’t as diverse as it could and should be, but diverse models and clothes are slowly trickling on to the catwalks. Georgina Wasdall, another of the disabled models from Zebedee Management, told me she recalled seeing only one disabled model at the Fashion Freedom show earlier in the weekend: “The diversifying is going slowly, but we’ll get there eventually,” she said.

I agree. We are seeing some truly talented disabled individuals emerging in the industry. Kate Grant, Benefit’s new brand ambassador, is a 20-year-old model with Down’s syndrome. Katie Renshaw, who has cerebral palsy, walked the catwalk at Panda with the help of a frame, after years of using a wheelchair.

If attending London Fashion Week has taught me anything, it’s that diversity and disability inclusion is slowly working its way into the fashion industry. And as Kate Grant told me: “The important thing is that we don’t give up.”

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Author: Roky