Since childhood, fashion has always given me joy. It has allowed me to present myself to the world as the person I am and strive to be, irrespective of the physical limitations of my disability. But in the five years since severe illness forced me to use a mobility scooter to get around, online retailers have become my primary access to new trends, owing to poor accessibility on my local high street. Recently, I heard about a disability charityâs campaign to improve shop access and wondered whether navigating luxury fashion stores on four wheels would be any less challenging. It seemed logical that designer labels, which often shell out millions to create opulent showrooms, would invest in basic equipment for access. So I ventured into Mayfair â one of Londonâs most expensive areas to shop â to explore the AW17 collections up close.
From the moment I rode out on to New Bond Street, I was beset by obstacles. It started with attempting to enter a designer store with a stepped entrance, then performing a red-faced U-turn outside because sales staff couldnât provide a ramp. As I continued around Mayfair, I discovered boutique after boutique with stepped entrances and no access ramps. Often staff delivered this information with an expression of bewilderment as to why anyone would require one, and nearly half of the shops I visited said they didnât have lifts to access upper floors.
Outside one store, however, I experienced the other extreme. A trio of sales staff emerged to offer assistance, WhatsApp numbers (âshould you need any help in the futureâ) and a ramp, ceremoniously placed to help me up the vertiginous steps.
Instead of having the freedom to choose where I shopped, these vastly different attitudes predetermined which labels I can and cannot wear.
In July, We Are Purple began its campaign, Help Me Spend My Money, to raise awareness of the obstacles facing disabled shoppers and promote disability awareness training for retail staff. Purpleâs Mark Flint explains that the initiative aims to âtransform thinkingâ and âillustrate that becoming disability-friendly is not just morally right, but makes complete business senseâ. I ask whether the campaign has had any interest from luxury fashion retailers. Flint stresses that it remains in its early stages and they are âhaving conversationsâ with a number of brands. Itâs not exactly a resounding yes.
Britainâs 11.9 million disabled people are acknowledged to have a spending power of Â£80bn. Known as the purple pound, it represents the largest untapped consumer market. A recent study by the Extra Costs Commission has found that 75% of disabled customers have left a shop because of poor service or access, and that British companies risk losing Â£420m a week in sales. These challenges are not unique to luxury shopping, and are a daily occurrence on high streets and in shopping centres across the country. âRecently, I was trying to help my little sister buy a dress for a dance,â says Quin, a 19-year-old wheelchair user from Canterbury, âbut all the shops had items too close together for me to navigate. I was forced to sit by the door and watch as my sister walked around. It seems as though thereâs an attitude that disabled people would never come in. We need and want things just the same as abled people.â
Angie, a 39-year-old with epilepsy and arthritis from Warwickshire, says that sales assistants are rude and unaccommodating towards her when she struggles to move around the shop floor on crutches. âItâs often an anxious experience, as you donât know how you will be treated by shop staff, and, when people tend to be negative rather than helpful, itâs easier not to go out and shop online [instead]â.
Lily, a 22-year-old from south-east England, doesnât use any aids such as a wheelchair, so itâs not always clear she has a disability. âWhen Iâm at the till and struggling to get money out because my left hand doesnât work as well as my right, I feel embarrassed. I usually apologise even if I know I shouldnât.â She now looks at every shop she visits to check it has adequate provision for disabled customers. If not, she will email the company or speak to them on social media.
My impossible shopping trip underlined the radical disconnect between the real-life experiences of disabled shoppers and the fashion industryâs very visible fascination with inclusion. Diversity is the hashtag du jour in fashion circles, with many designers talking fluently about their respect for a breadth of cultures and life experiences, and using models who do not conform to the tall, slim, white, cisgender, able-bodied archetype.
Edward Enninful, British Vogueâs new editor, has expressed frustration with the industryâs reluctance to create sustainable changes in reflecting the diverse identities of its consumers. His principles on ethnic diversity â âyou put one model in a show or in an ad campaign, that doesnât solve the problemââ also apply to disability representation. Although some designers have embraced disability models â most notably Alexander McQueen in the late 90s â the fact remains that, when disabled customers are prohibited from shopping, due to stairs, lack of seating or insufficient sales support, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the catwalk trend for disabled models is nothing more than that. It is the metaphorical millennial pink, soon to be consigned to the back of our closets.
Debate surrounding the use of disabled models was reignited at Teatum Jonesâs London fashion week show earlier this year, as Kelly Knox emerged on to the catwalk in a rust-hued dress knotted at the elbow to silhouette her amputated lower arm. The labelâs AW17 collection presented disability models as emblems of a backlash against ideas of the perfect form: âWhy do we look at ourselves in the mirror and see ugly instead of valuable? What are you looking at?â bellowed the disabled motivational speaker Nick VujiÄiÄ on the soundtrack. After reading reports describing the show as a âspectacleâ and âattention-grabbingâ, I approached Catherine Teatum and Rob Jones to find out whether their interest in the disabled body ran deeper than aesthetics, and found both to have a positive understanding of the practical issues affecting disabled shoppers.
In a joint statement, they say that retail accessibility should be a democratic experience: âImagine telling a group of people that they were not allowed into your retail space because you hadnât thought it through in the design stage? Or because you simply forgot about them or didnât consider their spending power? Youâd feel pretty awful, and so would they.â They observed that, although many designers strategically position themselves as radical: âwhen a fashion audience is actually faced with the reality of physical difference, there is sometimes tendency to feel uncomfortableâ.While the designers donât believe luxury brands are actively disengaging disabled shoppers, they agree that more can be done and see e-commerce as having a wealth of applications for the disabled and able bodied alike: âThis should be a conversation about inclusivity, after all.â
One of the most high-profile disabled models, Jillian Mercado, a 28-year-old with spastic muscular dystrophy, has starred in campaigns for Diesel and BeyoncÃ©. Mercado takes a hardline approach to accessibility. She says âexcluding a community is unacceptable and should be fixed as soon as possible.â Mercado is all too familiar with the difficulties of negotiating stepped entrances, hard-to-reach clothing rails and cramped changing rooms. She has confronted designers about their shop layouts, with some success â several have redesigned their entrances or provided ramps. âStaying silent on accessibility and inclusion is not something I can live with,â she says.
Helen Drury was employed by the disability minister as âsector champion for retailâ earlier this year to tackle the issues disabled people face as consumers. She says old buildings are part of the problem, with 40% of total UK building stock dating to before 1970, but admits that âif you look at public buildings, museums and theatres, there are opportunities for retro-fitting lifts and rampsâ. She lists new initiatives, such as giving shops autism-friendly training, which she hopes will reduce social isolation for the disabled community. However, such schemes remain voluntary, making them difficult to regulate, monitor and implement.
Of all the boutiques I visited in Mayfair, none stated access policies on their websites. Would there be stairs? How many? Was there a lift inside? It was the same on arrival, with no signage indicating access arrangements. Such information would encourage people to visit shops they previously assumed were inaccessible.
For anyone with a disability, resolving access issues before they occur is a part of everyday life. I eventually abandoned my shopping trip and headed on to the rainy street, armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of AW17 trends but clueless about how to gain physical access to them.