Wheels of Fortune: The “purple pound” and disabled people as consumers of fashion

Jillian Mercado in Diesel’s We Are Connected Spring/Summer ’14 Campaign (Photo: Inez & Vinoodh) [Image description: A photograph of a man and a woman in front of a blue background. The man had bleach-blonde hair. He is sitting on the floor and is wearing a denim shirt and jeans. Next to him is a woman with short bleach-blonde hair. She is seated in a power wheelchair and is wearing a denim shirt-dress. The text in the image reads “WE ARE CONNECTED #DIESELREBOOT]

Back in the day when it still had a forum, the BBC’s disability section, Ouch!, had a board called “I’ve just seen a disabled person on the TV!”. The fact was (and still is) that seeing disabled people on television or in other media is uncommon enough that when it does happen, it grabs the attention of any interested parties, usually disabled people themselves, who view these appearances with a mixture of interest and dread at how disability is represented (I’m not judging, I’m so notorious at doing this I’m devoting a three year doctoral degree to it). Two recent stories in particular have got me excited and exhausted in equal measure, and have made me think about not only disability visibility in fashion, but the ways in which disabled people are increasingly being seen as consumers in the fashion industry.

The first came a few weeks ago when fashion blogger and editor Jillian Mercado was featured in Diesel’s new “We Are Connected” campaign. The news of the advertisement featuring Mercado (and her wheelchair) soon went viral with publications including Elle, The Guardian, CNN, and the Daily Mail covering the story. The advertisement itself has appeared in shop windows, billboards and US Vogue. It’s a great image, and has kickstarted a debate about the visibility of disabled people in the media in general as well as the fashion industry.

What I particularly love about the advert is that Mercado looks not only beautiful, but incredibly cool. In media representations of disabled people, we’re so often presented to either inspire or be pitied. We’re the supercrip with the phenomenal achievements (“Man with no legs climbs Mount Kilimanjaro!” etc), or the tragic charity case. The refreshing thing about Mercado’s inclusion is that it feels totally natural in the context of the campaign, which features a combination of models, bloggers, artists and fashion industry types (or as the website for the campaign puts it “creative micro-cultures that represent the bravery and ingenuity of the Diesel brand.”) Mercado herself is an accomplished fashion blogger and the executive editorial director of We The Urban magazine. Compare this with other campaigns featuring disabled models such as one by the Debenhams department store in 2010, which seemed desperate to show how inclusive they were, only to fail to use any of these models in the future. It was great to see so much coverage of the campaign in the media, most of which seemed to understand the importance of seeing disabled people included in such a way (although the coverage also highlighted the desperate need for the wider adoption of the National Center on Disability and Journalism style-guide. Seriously, if I have to read the terms “wheelchair-bound” or “suffers from” again I’m going to scream.)

Danielle Sheypuk at Carrie Hammer S/S '14 (photo: Getty Images)

Danielle Sheypuk at Carrie Hammer S/S ’14 (photo: Getty Images) [Image description: A woman with long blonde hair is smiling towards the camera. She is on a catwalk and is seated in a power wheelchair. She is wearing a black top, a skirt with a black and white newspaper print design, and beige high-heeled shoes]

Two weeks ago, during New York Fashion Week, Dr. Danielle Sheypuk, a psychologist and Ms Wheelchair New York, worked the runway for designer Carrie Hammer. In an interview with The Guardian, Sheypuk discusses the importance of seeing disabled people represented in the fashion world and in an industry well criticised for its lack of diversity, she has a good point. By being made visible, disabled people can challenge the assumptions that we are unattractive, undesirable and unworthy of being seen. However, it was the following quote which struck me as most interesting:

“I think it’s very important for the spectrum of fashion designers (low- to high-end designers) to recognize their consumers with disabilities, and I don’t think that any designer really does a good job at that. We are essentially never pitched to, and virtually ignored when it comes to fashion.”

The idea of disabled people as consumers can be looked at in a number of ways. Firstly, what impact does seeing disabled models have on other disabled people? Are we more likely to purchase from brands which have made an effort to include those who are disabled? I’m reminded of the following quote from writer Junot Díaz on representation;

“If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves”

Maybe by seeing representations that reflect us in some way (sometimes for the first time), we can not only feel a sense of worth, but are more likely to feel as though these brands are “for us”. If you’re part of a group that is so often ignored or negatively represented, it can be tempting to latch on to any positive representation you see. Of course, the media coverage of both the Diesel campaign and Sheypuk’s appearance in the Carrie Hammer show suggests that the publicity gained is beneficial to the brands themselves, but I’m going to put cynicism aside and suggest that this was a pleasant side-effect, rather than the reason they happened in the first place.

Another way to look at disabled people as consumers is to look at the actual spending power attributed to them, the so-called “purple pound”. In the UK, the spending power of disabled people is estimated to be around £80bn a year. Although this data is from 2004 (and there is no data available to suggest whether this amount has gone up or down in light of the recession and cuts to services for disabled people), £80bn is not a number to be sniffed at. Accounts differ as to where the term “the purple pound” originated, but it has appeared in government press releases detailing the ways in which retailers can make their businesses more accessible for disabled people.

So, disabled people’s spending potential is being considered in terms of accessibility. But are our needs regarding clothing, as Danielle Sheypuk suggests, not being met? It’s all well and good using disabled models in your campaigns, but are these clothes accessible to disabled people, in all their varieties, in the real world?

The considerations needed when it comes to clothing when you are disabled are as diverse as impairments themselves. Many have no additional requirements and can find clothes on the high street. But for those with more complex needs, whether it’s finding clothes that are comfortable for people who are sitting down most of the time, clothes that are easily put on or taken off by assistants, clothes which can accommodate unusual body types or orthotics or don’t aggravate sensory sensitivities, there can be a lot of limitations placed on what can be worn. Some independent retailers and companies have been established which cater specifically to the needs of (usually physically) disabled people and attempt to be both practical and fashionable, going beyond the stereotypical crip combination of tracksuit trousers and, well…whatever the hell this is;

27000-womens-mens-adaptive-wheelchair-clothing-poncho-lined-cape

Sexy. [Image description: An older man and woman with grey hair are seated next to each other in manual, transit-style wheelchairs. They are smiling towards the camera. They are both wearing loose-fitting cape-style  hooded raincoats which cover them to the knees. The woman’s coat is beige and the man’s coat is grey]

However, being small businesses, the clothes are often not affordable for many of the people they are aimed towards. Being disabled is expensive, whether it’s the additional costs of care, transport or accommodation, or lack of job opportunities, and many who would otherwise benefit from these clothes are unable to buy them. The statistics may say that disabled people have £80bn in spending power, but the realities of disability are far from luxurious.

For many people clothes help tell the world who you are. From personal experiences, my research and interactions with other disabled people, I know that the way we dress is important for self-confidence and claiming an identity against a society which often tries to tell us what we are (when it’s not ignoring us completely). If we can’t wear the clothes we want to, if what we feel on the inside doesn’t match what we can show on the outside, how do we tell the world who we really are? Of course, this issue is not reserved exclusively for disabled people, and I’m very aware that by focusing on visual elements I’m prejudicing my thinking towards those with visible impairments (I’ve also focused on women rather than men, with apologies to everyone’s favourite breakfast aficionado Walter White Jr.) But I think that the conversation that has developed in recent weeks surrounding disability and fashion speaks to a desire from many disabled people to be better represented and catered for.

The types of bodies we see in the media is a highly politicised issue. The subject of diversity in fashion is often brought up in academia, the media and by activists, and there have been many challenges to the industry’s narrow ideas of beauty from these areas. The fact that disability is now being included in this conversation is an important step, and it is aided by the visibility of people such as Jillian Mercado and Danielle Sheypuk (along with established models such as Viktoria Modesta and Kelly Knox). What is important is that the conversation continues and develops. I want to see more disabled people included in fashion campaigns, on television, and in magazines. There needs to be a wider discussion of what clothing means to people, and how more people can access the clothing that meets their needs. Representation or accessible clothing may not be the most pressing disability rights issues, but the inclusion and consideration from wider society regarding the needs of disabled consumers is an important step forward.

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One comment

  1. Even to have this discussion is such a step forward. I just wish that it included those with a learning disability. My son, James, who is 25 and living on his own has Down Syndrome. He has a presence that others do not have and has even worked with MP’s in parliament. Let’s see more people with a learning disability. Contact me to find out more of how he can help promote your brand or company. You got to meet him to believe him.

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