Sarah’s List: Art School and Zebedee Are Working Together To Bring Disabled Models To The Catwalk
Can fashion be an agent for creating good? Over the past year, I’ve honestly felt the beginnings of a tumultuous sea change coming: that the only way that any fashion business will be able to justify its existence in the future is by weaving social responsibility into everything it does. Considering people before profit. Embodying social justice. Regarding the gift of creativity as a resource whose only moral use is its power to do good. Is this really too much to expect?
“Fashion should be about more than just clothes” sounds like a good mantra for our times – but then again, when has it not been? Every fibre of everything we wear, how it’s made, who it’s made by – and even how we think about it – is embedded in the very structure of every society. If we’ve been paying any attention, doing any reading, scrolling through fine print and checking any facts in the past year, we can’t avoid knowing this any more. In the light of what manufacturing extracts from nature, of the Black Lives Matter movement, of learning how every single systemic aspect is interlinked with perpetuating global inequality, it’s impossible to avoid the overwhelming feeling that the fashion industry is now faced with a single human choice: either we carry on denying or we join in a seismic conversion to bringing about change.
Having a mission to change things means automatically building social responsibility into the entire reason for a company’s existence. That means something much deeper and more holistic than producing charity slogan T-shirts in response to a crisis or a political cause. It means something more than, as so many large corporations do, regarding their “corporate social responsibility” policies as a matter of sponsoring charities that are far away and disconnected from their actual businesses. That doesn’t affect any structural change internally, or in the world around us. And don’t get me started on “carbon offsetting” as a covering excuse for a brand carrying on with its same old polluting activities. External distractions.
The real paradigm shifts in thinking – the places where we can reimagine what’s even possible in fashion – are coming from the ground up. In my experience of scanning fashion’s horizons, change always comes in forms that don’t fit norms, from the “outside”, from beneath, from the accumulation of small things. And just one of them is taking on the idea that socially progressive design isn’t about a single creative genius working on their own. I’ve explored three inspiring examples of people who are actively expanding the limits of fashion in everything they do.
When that time arrives, the industry of clothes-making will either have reformed itself, or have been forced to do so by legislation. But if it wants to get a head start, the mighty establishment should humbly look around, support and learn from everyone who’s putting social good at the heart of what they do. Because they, not the titans, are the leaders now.
Eden Loweth, Art School x Zebedee
Eden Loweth blew the doors off fashion’s “last taboo” last summer, and I watched it happening. In all the years that I’ve covered fashion shows, to see disabled models walking in community with Loweth’s gang of Art School friends was a first. There they were, on a sunny August day in Waterlow Park, in north London: people of many ages, genders, sizes, ethnicities, marching together through a social barrier that almost no one in the fashion industry ever discusses. It resonated as a lesson to our industry and far beyond. Are we really talking about diversity, inclusion, representation and equality in our society now? Because this is what it looks like.
Loweth worked on the show’s casting with Laura Johnson and Zoe Proctor, the incredible British sister-in-law duo who formed Zebedee, the first (and still the only) talent agency that finds, supports and negotiates for “models with disabilities and alternative appearances”. They have more than 100 people of all ages on their books. “We call it the inclusion revolution,” says Johnson. “In the disabled community, we’re well known, because we’ve made changes in representation worldwide. We’ve got a huge social media following, so people contact us. There was nothing before we started, and there’s been nothing since. As a disabled model, it’s virtually impossible to get representation from a typical agency.”
The idea for setting it up sprang into Johnson and Proctor’s minds during a walk near their homes in Lincolnshire in 2017. Proctor had been a curve model who converted to teaching performing arts for people with learning disabilities. Johnson was on maternity leave from her job as a qualified social worker, “working with young people with a variety of needs, whether with mental health [problems], disabilities or homelessness”, Proctor says. “I was having a moan to Laura, saying there’s a massive need for my talented students to get out there. And that’s when we said, ‘Let’s set up an agency!’” A quick Google search on return from their walk showed no one else was doing it. “There was no business plan. We just knew there was a need for it. We said, ‘Let’s throw absolutely everything we have at this, and if it doesn’t work, at least we’ll know we’ve tried,” Proctor says with a laugh. “That was over three years ago.”
For Loweth, who had been forging Art School (then with his ex-partner Tom Barratt) as a fashion community that gives a platform to nonbinary and trans identities, the constellation of people Zebedee has introduced him to is revelatory. He met Johnson and Proctor at the House of Commons, while sitting through a frustrating all-party meeting about diversity and inclusion in fashion that had been organised by Fashion Roundtable, for whom he acts as ambassador for representation. “I looked around the room, and they were all white males and cis white females who had no idea of the importance of what inclusion means to people. The conversation was so backward,” Loweth says. Except, that is, when he heard Johnson and Proctor having their say about including people with disabilities. “Honestly,” he continues, “I learnt that we share a common goal. They really gave me the confidence that I’m able to start these conversations properly, in the right way. My brand is growing. My platform is growing. So I want to reach further, to be sure I have as many people as I can, who I wouldn’t normally meet in my life. I wouldn’t have known any of the Zebedee models.”
The electric excitement of the show confirmed everything to Loweth. “There was a natural camaraderie that was going on backstage at the show. Most of [the models] have become friends now, some of them started going out. Everyone had a natural equality when they met each other.” Celeste came in to sing, standing at the top of the park’s steep path as Art School’s cool humans walked out – individuals gathered from communities that are typically marginalised, “othered” and denied visibility by fash- ion’s narrow norms. Loweth’s powerful, middle-aged, able-bodied women supporters Mimma Viglezio, Caryn Franklin and Cozette McCreery were striding among them. “That day was really challenging emotionally – it was a massive moment in my life. It was deeply humbling, to be honest,” he says.
Loweth had a little reunion for 10 Magazine, a portrait with two of Zebedee’s seven models who were in the show: Damian H, who has a prosthetic leg, and Niamh W, a York University student who has ectodermal dysplasia. Everyone wore pieces from Art School’s rugged, minimalist, all-inclusive collection for SS21. They’re all friends now, bonded by the uplifting experience and the continuing relationships made on that day. Fashion’s notorious reputation for making performative gestures is consciously avoided here – Loweth affirms he will continue to work with them, as part of the Art School community. “It’s only tokenism when people don’t book twice,” as Johnson puts it pithily.
There’s a unity of social purpose going on here, a collective will to do something more ambitious than just sell clothes. Zebedee is tackling change on all fronts – the first being the language about disability. “People do get worried about the language they use. May still feel awkward about saying the word ‘disabled’, but disabled isn’t a bad word. It doesn’t define people – it’s just a small part of what that person is,” Johnson points out. “A person with a disability knows they are disabled, so it’s OK to say that word. However, it’s society that disables people, not their disabilities.”
Not everyone within the community will agree on terms, Johnson and Proctor say, but they give practical guidelines. “Avoid the word ‘suffers’. So instead of saying, ‘Katie suffers from cerebral palsy,’ say, ‘Katie has cerebral palsy.’ Please don’t say ‘wheelchair-bound’, instead say ‘wheelchair user’. Don’t say that someone ‘is Down’s’, and instead say that they have Down’s syndrome.
“Try not to use the word ‘impairments’ – it’s better to use the term ‘health needs’ or ‘additional needs’. Try to say deaf, rather than ‘hearing impaired’. Generally, you shouldn’t use the word impairment. Use ‘blind’ or ‘partially sighted’, rather than ‘visually impaired’,” says Proctor. “But we’ve always said, let’s just have a talk about things. There are no silly questions. We’ve always said we’re learning along the way.”
The concept of being flexible, sensitive and respectful in language is nothing new to Loweth, of course. Since the beginning, Art School shows have acted as an edu- cator of the wider mainstream fashion audience about LGBTQIA+ terminologies, and about checking with people about how they identify. “As we’ve grown, I feel the responsibility on us to be more diverse and more inclusive because of the nature of what we stand for. I’m doing the best I can to ‘see’ everyone. If I can continue bringing in these different worlds and forming that into one cohesive message, that’s what I want to do.”
Changing the way people see is literally what fashion is meant to do. In 2021, transforming that superpower to make society better and more equal is the leading edge of where things are now. “The political/activism side of what I do has started to grow. I would strive to become something more than a designer in the future. I’m really impassioned by that,” Loweth says.
When Zebedee talks to clients, it is essentially leading moral conversations every day. “There’s the ethical responsibility of companies and brands. Now they’re hav- ing to prove their ethics in what they produce – and that includes inclusion and working with people ethically,” Johnson observes. “Because consumers, too, are looking for different things. People have either become numb to seeing these thin white women in advertising or they’re actively rebelling against it.”
There’s a big “but” coming, though. Johnson and Proctor say they’ve had much more success with supermarkets, high-street and non-fashion brands. Luxury fashion designers and their casting directors, the so-called avant-garde, are the ones who have been non-responsive. “This was only the second fashion show in which we’ve had any of our models invited to take part in London Fashion Week,” they say. No doubt that’s why I was so moved by seeing the Art School show last August. The casting and the collective spirit hit me as uplifting, powerful and joyful, but it was wrong that its impact on me felt new. This is what normality in fashion must become – not in the future, but now. So designers, fashion houses, where are you?