By Maria O’Sullivan-Abeyratne, CEO of Adaptista
This week sees the start of London Fashion Week, but how much inclusion has been implemented by the fashion industry? And, how much more work is needed to make it a space for people of all shapes, sizes and abilities?
As a young child in the 1980s, I remember seeing my older, then teenage sister who has severe scoliosis, crying regularly as she could never find any clothing that was fashionable to fit over her back brace. Fast forward to 2019 and while searching for a dress for my wedding, it was near impossible to find a dress to suit my requirements with my spinal and mobility issues and the more I researched accessibility within the industry, the worse it seemed to become.
This is why I created Adaptista: a disabled-led and ground-breaking WCAG AAA platform which launched the week of 14 February, to help brands access the disabled community in a meaningful way. With free consultation and support for brands to navigate design and language issues and represent smaller high quality adaptive brands in a new light, it’s a place where companies can learn and sell their inclusive products to a new audience.
Although pioneers like Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier have broken endless boundaries with genderless fashion and size inclusion on the runway since the 1990s, and Alexander McQueen choosing Aimee Mullins, a double amputee, to open his now iconic “No. 13” show for S/S19, genuine disabled representation in fashion is still somewhat lacking.
Due to the climate crisis, the world has become all too familiar with the term “green-washing”- where sustainable marketing and PR are deceptively used to persuade the public that a company’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly. Since the beginning of COVID and the rise of inclusion advocacy, we are now seeing more and more “purple-washing”. A practice where companies use disabled models to promote non inclusive/adaptive products without any meaningful effort to become more inclusive.
How can the fashion industry avoid being tagged as being guilty of this practice?
1. Have an accessible website
First, assess how accessible is your website: There are many free online tools to test your site to a basic WCAG2.0 level which will audit the website and guide you on what amendments you need to implement. But this doesn’t cover all accessibility needs, so it is vital to hire disabled testers to audit your website and work with your UX designers or developers to make recommendations on areas that need improvement.
Next, consider your imagery, is it clear and easy to see for those with low vision? Ensure the contrast in the background and model allows both colourblind and low vision users to see what your products are. Incredibly, 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women are colourblind. According to charity Fight For Sight 250 people start to lose their sight in the UK every single day. There are currently two million people with sight loss in the UK alone and that is expected to rise to four million people by 2050.
2. Use alt-tags
One of the most important features for website accessibility is alt tags. These are image descriptions in the code of your site and need to be on every single image – even your logo image! Alt tags are what screen readers use to describe an image to a person who is blind or has low vision. It is how they “see” your image through words and mental imagery. It is also important to add alt tags to your social media posts. For example, an alt tag might describe a “woman in a dress”. This could be re-written to read “a woman with long brown hair and natural make up wears a sage green sleeveless shift dress with square neckline paired with forest green court shoes and a gold bracelet”. A Blind or low vision consumer can now better understand what your product is, even down to its styling! Leading to more conversion for businesses. Look at one of your products and close your eyes – how would you like someone to describe that product to you if you were unable to see it?
3. Produce accessible clothing
For clothing, consider making even the smallest of changes. Perhaps you can use magnetic or Velcro buttons instead of standard buttons in some designs. And companies like Ankhgear and YKK now make fantastic magnetic zips, allowing people with limb difference, mobility issues or stroke recovery to have more autonomy while dressing. Even better, can you design without buttons or zips like designers such as Issey Miyake?
4. Make your events accessible
For in-person fashion week events, have you invited any disabled guests? Have you considered the accessibility of the venue? Is there a working accessible toilet? And is it easy to get step-free access to your venue? Does your welcome desk have a suitable height for everyone? Can a person with dwarfism or in a wheelchair speak comfortably to the person behind the ticket desk? Make sure to do site visits months or weeks prior to the event. If there is only a high reception desk, why not create a second lower desk or table? Make sure there is enough space between rows of chairs for someone with a walking aid or a wheelchair. Ensure your lighting is compliant for those with photosensitive epilepsy.
5. Hire disabled models
Have you hired disabled models? Consider their ability to manoeuvre backstage, have clear walkways to the toilets, the make-up and hairdressing areas and the runway. They may need a long comfortable bench to lay on to change into clothes easily and they may require more privacy in doing so. Most importantly – ask your model what they need, every single disabled person has different requirements.
There are so many small changes that can be made to make inclusion a reality. The disabled community has been excluded for so long, there is a deep mistrust of the industry. At Adaptista we are working towards helping companies to change this, meaningfully.