How businesses can strut into D&I with the same grace as Fashion Week

How businesses can strut into D&I with the same grace and elegance as the Afterpay Australian Fashion Week

A few years ago, Australian Fashion Week came under serious fire for a profound lack of diversity in the models that were included on the runways, the people behind-the-scenes and the garments showcasing.

To put it simply, Australian Fashion Week just didn’t reflect society.

It’s perfectly fine to have an exclusive niche that’s somehow aspirational and excludes certain demographics, if that’s what your brand’s reputation is built around. However, when your marketing strategy is largely based on targeting ‘consumers of fashion’ then it only makes good business sense to create an environment (through inclusive representation) in which consumers can see themselves reflected.

The way we consume our content is making brands and businesses more accountable for what they are or aren’t doing. Consumers are also now finding their voice and realising that they do have purchasing power in the multi-billion dollar fashion and retail space.

If brands and labels don’t represent them then they’ll simply find a brand or business that does that.

When it comes to the representation of disability in the fashion industry, this is something I’ve been writing and speaking about for several years, as have others. I was thrilled to see diversity become more mainstream and was delighted to see more and more content being produced that featured bodies of different sizes, shapes and colours.

I wrote about this for a New York fashion magazine – about the “more palatable” forms of diversity that I was witnessing year upon year.

Yet still, somebody was missing. Someone who represented approximately 20% of our population. Someone who looked like me and some of my friends. Someone with a disability.

It’s been a number of years since I first got in touch with IMG, who owns and operates Afterpay Australian Fashion Week (AAFW) and was delighted that they were so open to listening and creating change. I was brought on as one of the disability consultants and I worked-behind the-scenes for a couple of years alongside an incredibly committed and dedicated team at Afterpay with a longer-term vision for D&I.

2021 was the first year in history that disability had been included in any Australian Fashion Week. It was progress to be proud of but learnings also came from mistakes.

It’s at this point that I have to commend individuals at AAFW for standing firm and staying true to their values of D&I and disability representation, despite the backlash of 2021. I mention this because I want AAFW to be an example to other brands of how to do better at D&I.

Here’s what the old (incorrect) model looks like:

  • Business tries a D&I strategy
  • For some reason it doesn’t work
  • Business calls it a failure
  • Business gives up on implementing D&I ever again  

A better way (the way AAFW did it)

  • Implement a D&I strategy
  • Mistakes happen
  • Business learns for next time
  • Business comes back bigger and better next year

One of the most important things that AAFW did was to hire disability consultants. This is a crucial lesson for any business aiming to implement a D&I strategy that’s outside of their lived-experience, and applies to other marginalised groups as well.

I can’t speak for the Indigenous community or the LGBTQIA+ community, however if it is as nuanced as the disability community then it’s essential that you have someone with significant lived experience ‘at the table’ because as the saying goes, “Nothing about us without us”.

Additionally, if you or your business would like some help navigating the nuances of disability language then here’s a Handbook prepared by a committed team of working journalists and media professionals at Media Diversity Australia. You can read more about it here.

As a matter of fact, it doesn’t even need to be for the implementation of a D&I strategy. I’ve previously worked with screenwriters, scriptwriters, copywriters, producers, filmmakers, advertisers and others who want to include disability in their work. I’ve spoken with them about the importance of asking an ‘actual disabled person’ if a character’s words or actions are authentic.

Anyway, I digress. Back to farshun, daaarling!

The world around us is diverse; society is vibrant with people that are short, tall, curvy, slim, bodies that use artificial limbs to function, and people in wheelchairs – and this doesn’t even nearly cover the number of unique people out there. 

Only showcasing fashion for one sector of our society proved limiting, not only for the Australian Fashion Week’s potential target audiences, but also for the business as a whole. 

Diversity and inclusion holds different meanings in different circumstances. For some businesses, it means diversifying the workforce while other brands have the scope to further diversity into their product offerings, catering to a larger audience by customising what you make to certain different needs. Fashion is a prime example. 

I am really excited to see the overwhelmingly positive response to this year’s AAFW. I saw this show from many perspectives and enjoyed them all. To go from zero representation just a few years ago to three designers and numerous models with disabilities, a runway for adaptive fashion and backstage disability consultants isn’t just a little step forward – it’s a leap!

Even more exciting: the D&I strategy has only just begun!

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