How New York Fashion Week Made Diversity Chic

As the New York Times commented on the just-wrapped New York Fashion Week, the models walking the runway for US brands’ Autumn/Winter collections were more diverse than ever before—but of course, there’s a long way to go. As the Times observed, “In this latest round of shows, which ended on Thursday, many designers appeared to have taken a hard look at the highly charged issue of casting, stepping up their efforts to hire racial and ethnic minorities and sounding a chord for inclusiveness.”

Kudos to the runway shows by Puma x Fenty by Rihanna, Hood by Air, Telfar and Gypsy Sport all featured models of “varying ethnicities” — some sourced on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook— along with brands such as Rosie Assoulin, Sophie Theallet and Tory Burch.

Beyond skin tones, this New York Fashion Week also featured models better reflecting the general population, including physical disabilities thanks to the continuing efforts of FTL MODA and other forward-thinking fashion industry outfits. For the third consecutive year, FTL’s show featured models like 6-year-old Gianna Schiavone, who walked hand in hand down the catwalk (as seen at top) with runway veteran Rebekah Marine, both congenital amputees.

As Marine (aka “the bionic model“) told TIME, “I think it’s so cool to be at the front of the line of this change, and being able to open the door and inspire others to open their minds to different models.” Hear, hear.

“I’ve been trying to push the boundaries in the fashion industry, hoping that I can open doors for people like Gianna in the future,” Marine also told People. “It was really cool to incorporate her in the show.” Her “mini-me” Gianna added, “It’s fun because we both have the same thing in common. Walking with her makes me feel happy because there’s not just one me in the world.”

The show also included Shaholly Ayers, born without a right arm below the elbow (and featured on a billboard in Times Square in partnershipwith Global Disability Inclusion); Fausto Di Pino, a professional Italian model who just returned to work following cancer treatment; and teen Madeline Stuart, returning for her second NYFW—and still one of the only people with Down syndrome to ever walk a runway.

“The choice of models serves a very important purpose: to create a ripple effect not only in the fashion industry, but the world at large,” stated show producer Ilaria Niccolini. “We want to help create a better world for children like Gianna Schiavone: a world where they won’t have to endure a lifetime of bullying.”

Designers Lulu et Gigi and Josefa Da Silva also support inclusion of “diversely-abled” models. “For the models, it doesn’t matter if they’re a little bit more on the heavier side or have some disabilities,” said Da Silva. “They should be able to express themselves freely just like anyone else without being judged.”

The Department of Labor estimates that the 56 million Americans with disabilities have more than $175 billion in discretionary spending power. The disability market is four times larger than the sought after “tween” (8-14) market, but as of 2012, just 3% of Fortune 500 companies developed marketing campaigns that featured people with disabilities.

As more brands continue to commit to using diverse models and to showcasing their social responsibility, that paltry figure is destined to increase. The next challenge for Ayers, at least: convincing Sports Illustrated to break down another wall and feature its first disabled model in its swimsuit issue in the wake of showcasing different body types in this year’s swimsuit issue.

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