Updated: May 26
Words by Georgia Poole
Everyday as a society we wake up, role out of bed and decide what to adorn our bodies with. Whether it’s for work, school, or leisure, how we dress represents who we are and how we wish to be perceived. Fashion’s impact on individuality, expression and self-esteem is unmatched and intrinsic to the contemporary human experience.
However, despite its power, fashions ignorance of inclusivity is felt across the world. Not everyone can wake up and represent themselves as who they want to be. Some are restricted to neglected colour palettes, uncomfortable shapes and ill-fitting silhouettes. Imagine waking up everyday and being forced to wear something that made you feel less than. Imagine waking up and having no other option but something uncomfortable, something that causes pain, or even something that simply isn’t you. This is the reality for so many Australians with disabilities and individuals worldwide, who everyday are faced with a feeling of being forgotten by the fashion industry, or by the world in general; lacking in representation, support and empowerment.
However, change is in the air. As the dust settles from the excitement and anticipation of Afterpay’s Australian Fashion Week (Hereafter AAFW), a residual highlight is revealed. The Age of Ability: A time for fashion to focus on how it can morph to compliment disability, inspiring and empowering its consumer.
How fashion is lending itself to adaptive garments and catering across body types is becoming ever important within the ‘body inclusivity’ conversation. Not only have inclusive size ranges become a prerequisite for success, but a brands ability to adapt itself and its garments according to a users specific needs, disadvantages and alterations has been revealed as a new and required focus.
In an Australian first, The Adaptive Clothing Collective’s AAFW runway championed inclusive and adaptive clothing. The Adaptive Clothing Collective (hereafter ACC) was founded by three of Australia’s leading adaptive and inclusive clothing brands: JAM the Label, The Shapes United, and Christina Stephens. In establishing this collective, the brands hoped to create a united front for an emerging industry. This allows them to stand as an example for brands who aspire to create more inclusive ranges.
AAC’s runway at this year’s fashion week featured 10 models with disability. A truly historical event within Australian Fashion, the AAC has situated itself as a pioneer and safe haven for those in need of adaptive change, and for brands who wish to make their next step towards successful and wholistic body inclusivity.
Carol Taylor is the designer and co-founder of Christina Stephens, who featured in ACC’s show. She began her journey in adaptive clothing following a spinal cord injury, which left her quadriplegic. As someone who felt passionately towards the fashion industry prior to her injury, Carol grew frustrated with the lack of options offered by mainstream fashion, thus inspiring her to begin this new venture. She states, “We have plus-sized fashion in retail, we have maternity, we have so many other categories … one In five Australians has a disability, where are they represented in mainstream fashion?”. This statistic alone is indicative of a need within the industry for change and consideration of the consumer.
In future fashion weeks, one should hope that a show does not have to be dedicated to this level of inclusion, but that diversity may be spread across all shows, regardless of brand, design or philosophy. Inclusivity should become intrinsic to brand success, as body size diversity has in recent years .
Kimbralou’s 2022 AAFW runway show While AAC’s runway certainly underpins an industry move towards adaptive clothing, Afterpay’s Inclusive by Design Program has allowed for the entirety of fashion week to recognise and feel this thematic change. Where last year’s Fashion Week saw a championing of First Nations Fashion and Design, this year’s focus on the future of fashion in diversity and inclusivity was at the forefront of Afterpay’s vision.
The Inclusive by design program “…seeks to carve out a fresh platform for disabled designers”. This year it announced Kimbralou as the winner of the program. As an Australian brand founded and owned by designer, Kimbra Louise, their success is attributed to a focus on “true intuitive inclusivity”. Kimbra’s ongoing struggle with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and difficult upbringing has empowered and inspired her to be unapologetically herself, embracing challenge in her pursuits.
Kimbralou’s 2022 AAFW runway show Kimbra’s garments were displayed in the future of fashion show, an annual exhibition that champions upcoming and otherwise disadvantaged designers. Her designs focused on repurposing fabrics, focusing on sustainability and adaptability in her products. In focusing on being true to herself, her needs, and her passions for adaptability, Kimbra has produced a notable collection, aligning with AAFW’s mission to explore adaptable fashion and how it can be perceived across designers.
While this past AAFW has demonstrated significant change and impact for adaptive and inclusive fashion, representation is gradually being seen overseas. The homegrown approach that Australia’s fashion industry brings is starkly different from fashions reputation abroad, making adaptivity in fashion media a more difficult goal. However, with Australia leading the way, many brands are identifying the needs of their consumers and therefore a need for change in their representation of disability.
Burberry’s most recent Instagram Campaign features Models, Iona and Monty, who both have limb differences. These models alongside these images are offering themselves as the first substantial representation of adaptive clothing within luxury fashion.
While sectors such as activewear have been seeing a significant growth in adaptive inclusion in recent years, the luxury and high fashion industry spaces are yet to see dramatic inclusion.
Following the distinctive focus of AAFW, and with international retailers dipping their toe into this new consumer insight, adaptive fashion should hope to bring itself to the forefront of inclusivity. While this article highlights a recent surge in representation and visibility of adaptable garments, an ongoing push will be required to ensure an effective trickle down effect to more accessible and affordable retail outlets. This is to ensure the one in five Aussies who experience disability might be more comfortable and proud of themselves and their representation. Everyone deserves to feel at home in their own body, unrestricted by uncomfortable garments and an unsupportive industry.