Meet the model agency fighting body fascism

A recent Gucci beauty campaign, starring model Ellie Goldstein, who has Down’s syndrome, was a smash hit. But campaigners say they are still facing an uphill battle for disability visibility in fashion

“In a world where the mainstream concept of what is and isn’t beautiful becomes increasingly narrow, you have to be young, you have to be thin, you should preferably be blonde, and of course, pale skinned,” lamented Alexander McQueen in his 1998 guest-edited issue of Dazed & Confused. On the cover, model Aimee Mullins stood defiantly in prosthetic legs beside the headline “Fashion-Able?” The question mark was left hanging – challenging readers to recognise a vision of beauty that was unlike anything that had been seen before.

Within the issue, a 14-page fashion editorial was dedicated to models with disabilities. However, despite newspaper reports that the disability diverse photoshoot had broken down “one of the last bastions of body fascism”, very little changed. Two decades after McQueen’s groundbreaking recognition, is the fashion industry finally taking notice?

Model Aimee Mullins on the cover of Dazed & Confused, 1998
Model Aimee Mullins on the cover of Dazed & Confused, 1998. Photograph: Dazed, September 1998, Fashion Able issue Photography Nick Knight, styling Katy England

The ugly myth “diversity doesn’t sell” is being increasingly challenged. Earlier this summer, Gucci unveiled its latest mascara campaign, starring Ellie Goldstein, an 18-year-old model with Down’s syndrome. The response was euphoric. Set against the able-bodied ideals of beauty, the Instagram post racked up 850k likes – tenfold the number on Gucci’s average post.

The sight of Goldstein with a raven flick of Gucci Mascara L’Obscur, offset by this season’s turquoise-encrusted 70s-style dress, became more than an advert for enviable lashes. It was a fresh rallying cry against archaic aesthetic ideals. Dispelling all arguments against inclusivity with aplomb – it was, in the words of the Italian brand, their “biggest liked post EVER”.

Ellie Goldstein with a raven flick of Gucci Mascara L’Obscur.
Ellie Goldstein with a raven flick of Gucci Mascara L’Obscur. Photograph: Photographer @davidpdhyde Vogue x Gucci

Photographer David PD Hyde was chosen to shoot Goldstein, who is signed with the UK-based Zebedee Management, which represents models with disabilities and visual differences. “The project is about embracing beauty in diversity,” Hyde says. As a photographer with a physical disability, he confirms that half the people on the shoot also had disabilities. As a result, the published images achieve a level of sensitive representation that is rare and authentic.

The campaign comes at a time when disabled models are more visible than ever before. Jillian Mercado, for example, has recently featured in the pages of British Vogue.

Model Jillian Mercado appears on the catwalk for The Blonds during New York fashion week, February 2020
Model Jillian Mercado appears on the catwalk for The Blonds during New York fashion week, February 2020. Photograph: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows

Research has shown, though, that less than 20% of UK adverts feature minority groups. When it comes to disability representation, the exclusion is even more stark – a fifth of the UK population is recorded as disabled, yet only 0.06% of adverts feature disabled people.

“We hope the Gucci campaign is the tipping point for an inclusion revolution across luxury fashion,” says Laura Johnson, director of Zebedee Management who, as a qualified social worker, has experience working with vulnerable adults and children. She founded the agency with her sister-in-law, Zoe Proctor, with the aim of creating more opportunities for disabled people.

Since launching in 2017, Zebedee has amassed an impressive client base. From high-street stores such as H&M to the luxury womenswear brand Teatum Jones, they are proving that diverse casting is the future. “That said, we move from feelings of fantastic optimism, to disappointment and frustration when we don’t see further bookings pouring in. Often progress feels painfully slow,” says Johnson.

Fashion month is proving hardest to conquer. In the past, Zebedee has not secured any bookings for London fashion week, despite continually making calls to designers, brands and casting teams. “This is very disappointing,” admits Johnson. “Maybe they are worried about practicalities. I really don’t know.”

Every season The Fashion Spot’s Runway Diversity Report tracks inclusivity at fashion week. Whilst it has recorded an overall increase in racial, size, age and gender diversity in recent years, disability is never mentioned. Put simply, there is little to report. It is indicative of the endemic lack of disabled models on the catwalk.

Model Kelly Knox on the Teatum Jones catwalk in London on September 15, 2017
Model Kelly Knox on the Teatum Jones catwalk in London, September, 2017. Photograph: AFP Contributor/AFP/Getty Images

“Twenty-six years ago, there were no disabled models to be seen in mainstream media,” says Louise Dyson. As the founder of an established modelling agency, Dyson was first approached by a wheelchair manufacturer who needed a disabled model for its adverts. But in 1994, there were no professional disabled models, and it sparked a nationwide competition to find suitable candidates. Judged by a panel of fashion editors, photographers and celebrities, the Sunrise Model in a Million contest saw 16 finalists vie for a modelling contract. Overnight, the models became a global news headline – opening up conversations about the underrepresentation of disability in fashion for the first time.

Building on this momentum, Dyson went on to found VisABLE, a pioneering talent agency for disabled models, actors and presenters. Initially, it proved difficult to translate the buzz into work: “When I met with my industry contacts to promote VisABLE models – despite having a friendly reception from everyone and they agreed it was an important idea to embrace diversity – they didn’t offer any bookings.”

One of the barriers facing disability casting is the misconception that models won’t be able to participate in photoshoots. In reality, this isn’t the case. “Booking a disabled model is like booking any model,” says Dyson. “Where required, our highly professional models will take their own assistant and the photographer can get on with their own job without having to worry.”

“Clients only need to make minor changes to ensure that the working environment is suitable,” agrees Johnson. However, casting venues are not always accessible for wheelchair users, and with organisers refusing to offer alternatives, their models automatically lose work. “In time, the industry will be more inclusive, and there’ll be less need for us, but currently, it’s really hard to encourage brands to book disabled models.”

But do agencies such as Zebedee risk segregating disabled models? “I feel like disability is the only minority group where you could get away with that kind of segregation,” says Kelly Knox, who is signed to MiLK Model Management. Born without her lower left arm, Knox is one of a handful of disabled or visually different models signed to a mainstream agency – others include Jillian Mercado and Aaron Philip.

Although Knox praises the inclusive spirit of her current agency, starting out in modelling required huge resilience: “I was told I’d get more work if I wore a prosthetic arm. How hurtful and ableist … basically saying I’ll only be accepted into this industry if I look ‘normal’.” In principal, a disability-friendly agency provides protection from this discrimination.

“Standard agencies have historically shown a woeful duty of care to their models,” says Caryn Franklin, a fashion commentator. “An agency that prioritises body difference is in a better place to advocate for their members with specialised needs.”

Although progress has been made, the fashion industry is still facing criticism about its underrepresentation of marginalised perspectives. Disability is the next frontier. As the Gucci campaign has shown, when fashion opens itself up, everyone takes notice.


Lottie Jackson

The GuardianTramp

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