Part Three: Disability, And The Nature Of Art And Commerce
In September of 1998, the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen helped to ignite a fashion revolution through what he described as a “joyful celebration of difference.” As the guest editor of the British style magazine Dazed, he took it upon himself to push the boundaries of fashion and style and create clothing for what he termed ‘differently-abled bodies.’ For the shoot, he invited the Paralympian Aimee Mullins to grace the cover and contemporary designers that included Rei Kawakubo and Hussein Chalayan to create and supply clothing for a cast of other disabled models. The magazine brought in stylist Katy England and photographer Nick Knight, who both described the experience as one of the most important shoots they had ever done, driving a vision that was honest, beautiful, and pushed the boundaries of what was possible. Mullins would go on to walk in McQueen’s Spring Show in 1999 wearing a pair of carved prosthetic legs he had designed that would later be featured in the exhibition Savage Beauty.
Over the past twenty years, there has been a slow evolution in embracing persons with disabilities within the fashion and style community. Yet, that is beginning to change, with the confluence of technology and the ability to be exposed to new young designers who happen to have disabilities, shifting demographics, and a greater understanding of the economic opportunity of adaptative clothing we are beginning to embrace the realization of the importance of fashion and style as a fundamental instrument in redefining the notion of beauty and ultimately the social identity of persons with disabilities.
Social media from Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook have offered a pathway for young designers to get there name out and expand the landscape of adaptive fashion and design. By breaking old stereotypes, designers such as So Yes, Abilitee and Sonia Prancho are only a handful of examples entering the marketplace that are setting new trends and illustrating what adaptive clothing can do in refining the notion of beauty and moving society forward to a greater level of acknowledgment by expanding the landscape of aesthetics and offering new fresh perspectives.
As the representation of persons with disabilities continues to mature, we are seeing the relationship between art and commerce establishing itself more substantially. According to Vogue Business, the global market for adaptive clothing will reach $400 billion by 2026. The disability population in the US alone has a collective disposable income of around $490 billion, which has enticed brand names such as Tommy Hilfiger, Zappos, LandsEnd, Target amongst other well-known companies to produce adaptive lines that include various jeans sizes to allow for prostheses, sundresses that use Velcro fasteners in place of small buttons, and jackets and trousers designed to be comfortable for wheelchair users. Seeing the economic possibilities in front of them, it is important that both these brands and the disability community practice reciprocity. They each must recognize the growing social and economic value that they serve for one another breeding a revolutionary bond in ways that they may have never considered before. This is an opportune moment where both can enhance and cultivate what can be a very effective relationship. Not unlike the entertainment industry, the fashion industry is an extension of who we are and is aspirational by nature. Like designer Coco Chanel once said, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” Fashion offers us an understanding of the time we live in and expands the personal narrative of who we are. But fashion must also serve as a connective tissue between industry, designer, and ultimately the consumer and end-user. We need to take this moment to both learn and listen. The industry has to communicate with designers, designers have to connect with consumers, and everyone has to continue to have an open dialogue. It is these very mechanics that open up the door for art and commerce to find common ground to serve as a system for change in the 21st-century economy.
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