When it comes to fashion, the term ‘inclusivity’ is typically tacked on to efforts made in the realm of size and race. It’s about making people feel included and seen, but our strides often only extend to minorities that are overtly visible. With one in five Australians living with disability (and many of those with invisible disabilities), it’s a disservice to overlook an entire cohort of people who are typically known as the largest minority. The fashion world is yet to see an uprising about disabled representation, but slowly, the noise is growing.
Last year’s Australian Fashion Week was home to controversy when model and Paralympian Rheed McCracken had difficulty manoeuvring his wheelchair on the confetti-filled runway. It reaffirmed the notion that being diverse doesn’t necessarily equal being inclusive.
In an Australian fashion week first, this year AAFW has held an adaptive fashion runway featuring the designs of JAM the label and Christina Stephens. It might feel like an on-the-nose apology in an attempt to rewrite the wrongs of the previous year, however, the monumental event has been fully embraced by those participating. Afterpay and IMG have also contracted disability consultants Lisa Cox and Nikki Hind to ensure that the week is accessible and appropriate for all disabled cast, crew and attendees.
The involvement of people with lived experience of disability is central to our conversations about adaptive fashion — ‘nothing about us without us’ is a slogan for a reason — and it’s something that the designers and founders behind JAM the label and Christina Stephens are acutely aware of as non-disabled people.
Emma Clegg and Molly Rogers created JAM the label in 2019 (the name comes from two of their disabled clients, Jack and Maddie). They tell Refinery29 Australia that collaboration has always been one of JAM’s main values.
“Something that we're very aware of is that we don't want to ever speak for those with disability. We ensure we include people with disability in front of the camera and also behind-the-scenes to ensure we are allowing people with lived experience to control the narrative,” they tell us, adding that for AAFW, they worked with Rachel Shugg, a design graduate with who lives with disability.
For the founder of Christina Stephens Jessie Sadler, her brand was birthed after her mum had a fall and damaged her elbows, which made dressing more difficult. Sadler tells Refinery29 Australia that since the brand’s inception in 2020, they’ve been working with a strong network of people with lived experience of disability, but this year they've stepped it up and have designer, lawyer, artist and disability advocate Carol Taylor become co-owner and lead designer of Christina Stephens.
“It's an important moment. We’re delighted that the time’s come, and we’re excited about shining a new and unexpected light on adaptive fashion,” Sandler says, praising Australia’s first dedicated adaptive runway.
Clegg and Rogers agree, saying, “We are really excited for the disability community to see that not only are they being represented on the runway (which is super important) but that AAFW is taking it a step further and showcasing clothing that actually considers the disability community in the design process.”
The behind-the-scenes representation will also be mirrored on the runway, which will feature a range of disabled models. Actress Chloé Hayden tells us that finding out she was going to be part of the show was an “out of this world” experience.
“I grew up practising my model walk, doing personal little photo shoots, going to those Dolly model searches...I'm always jaw dropping at Australian Fashion Week,” she says. “Finding out that I was going to walk? Holy guacamole, man. I think you could hear my screams from the other side of the world.”
For author, consultant and disability influencer Lisa Cox, the news that she was going to model for Christina Stephens “meant so much to [her]”. “I feel more accepted and I feel seen by an industry that I haven’t felt a part of since I became disabled over 16 years ago… I feel both honoured and privileged to be a part of such a landmark event in Australian fashion history.”
The absence of inclusivity has translated into a feeling of being unimportant and uncatered for, says Cox. “[It’s] offensive and it really hurts. But on the other hand, people with disabilities are consumers too so that attitude is just bad business. My legs don’t work but my credit card does!”
I love fashion... but as someone who often experiences quite high sensory needs, I'm often left out of the equation.
Hayden acknowledges that she is “able-bodied and thin” but shares that her autism prevents her from being as involved in fashion as she’d like. “I love style, I love fashion, I love showing my identity and personality through what I wear — but as someone who often experiences quite high sensory needs, I'm often left out of the equation,” she says. “Many items of clothing feel like I'm bathing in fire, or a pit of nails. There was times as a kid that I would rip my clothes off in public because the tag felt like it was slicing me in half.”
In comparison, her first fashion week experience has been one that’s felt comfortable and accomodating. “The entire experience has been absolutely incredible. Usually when I'm working on projects, it's with neurotypicals and non-disabled people where I often feel uncomfortable in asking for accommodations. With this project solely focussing on accessibility, my needs were not only constantly met, but never once made out to be a burden, and simply seen as normal.”
JAM’s founders echo this, telling us that they individually spoke with each of their models to understand their accessibility requirements as well as consulting them during the design phase to make sure all pieces were reflective of their needs. “We know it's important to ask the question and that each person is the expert of their own accessibility needs,” they add.
Clegg and Rogers want to encourage non-disabled people to try out adaptive fashion; its ‘universal design’ features are more comfortable, convenient and accessible for everyone. The pair swear by their designs too, saying that they “live in [their] JAM clothes”.
With 20% of the population living with a disability, the proportion of beautiful, quality, and on-trend fashion available, is vastly lacking.
"Purchasing from and supporting Australian inclusive [and] adaptive fashion brands will prove to the Australian fashion industry that there is the demand out there, and they need to be including people with disability throughout their businesses."
The end goal? For adaptive fashion to be considered a regular part of fashion, just as maternity clothes and extended size ranges are.
“Adaptive, inclusive fashion — designs for people with disabilities and changing bodies — must be seen as ‘mainstream’. With 20% of the population living with a disability, the proportion of beautiful, quality, and on-trend fashion available, is vastly lacking,” says Sadler.
“It shouldn't be newsworthy that there is a there is a designer with disabilities or clothes for people with disabilities at AAFW, but for now it must be celebrated,” says Cox. “I hope that in many years to come there aren't articles such as this and that disability in the fashion industry just the norm.”