Australian Fashion Week Puts Us To Shame… Again

Australian Fashion Week has again let us down and again, the world was watching.

As it is home to Australian Fashion Week, Sydney could be regarded as our fashion capital. The annual event is an opportunity for homegrown designers to showcase their latest pieces and let the world know just how ‘on-trend’ the Australian fashion industry is.

But this year, Sydney has again disappointing us on the world stage with a fairly predictable lineup of models and styles. 

Instead, it’s little ol’ Brisbane that is leading the charge and (thankfully) letting the rest of the world know that we’re not as behind-the-times as the Sydney-based  Australian Fashion Week would rightly have you believe.

The long-standing issue of fashion media, shows and runways not being reflective or representative of society is a debate that’s decades old. Severely underweight and often underaged females (especially) being used to promote clothes for the ‘average’ woman has long been the subject of international outrage.

As the author of two books about body image and the media and as someone with both an academic and  professional background in media, advertising and marketing, I’ve written and spoken widely on these issues.

In the last couple of decades, I’ve also been paying close attention to local and international trends across popular culture, particularly in advertising and the fashion industry.  

With the rise of social media’s body positivity movement and a growing group of influencers challenging stereotypes, there have been fantastic flow-on effects to the fashion industry. 

The industry is now including a more diverse mix of models in various shapes and sizes, with different abilities and from different cultural backgrounds. All over the world, the catwalks are reflecting the community and the consumers.

Everywhere, that is, except Australia.

Sure, there is diversity but only ever in relation to skin colour or body size. While I’m thrilled to (finally) see this change, I’m disappointed that Australian Fashion Week is still failing to represent 20% of Australians.

Milan, New York, Moscow, Paris Fashion Week and others, have had models with wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs or other visual differences grace their catwalks for years. But Australia’s fashion industry is still too afraid to ’go there’.

I’m saying “visual disabilities” because it’s the only way of truly identifying a disability in a single glance. I know my invisible disabilities are much easier to conceal than my wheelchair.   

I also completely understand that it’s not the responsibility of the fashion industry to include every single minority group that’s feeling underrepresented. 

After all, it’s Australian Fashion Week. Not Australian Representation Matters Week.

But 20% of the population – that’s the approximately 1 in 5 Australians who identify as having a disability – is a relatively large portion of the community to ignore. Not forgetting the millions more family, friends and others who will support the brands and businesses that support their loved ones. 

So to save Australia from this embarrassing international debacle comes the Mercedes-Benz Brisbane Fashion Festival.

If Sydney won’t evolve then Brisbane will.

This year, the Mercedes-Benz Brisbane Fashion Festival featured a number of models with disabilities and I was thrilled to be one of them, wearing Carol Taylor’s MeQ Designs (below).

Members of Brisbane’s fashion-forward scene (we’re still waiting for some to join us in 2019) have been leading the trend for more inclusive catwalks a few years now. I’ve been on the runway for different events and shoots on a number of occasions and only wish Sydney would follow Brisbane’s lead and signal to the rest of the world that Australian fashion runways are not as bland as they currently look.

So why is the inclusion of disability even an issue?

I’ll answer that from two perspectives. 

Firstly, the disability community is not recognised or included across popular culture. I know that as both someone with disabilities and someone who spends a lot of their personal and professional life consuming various forms of popular culture. From mainstream media, independent media, advertising, the arts, fashion and more. 

People with disabilities rarely, if ever, appear in any of the above. If popular culture doesn’t want to think about us then the rest of the population must not want to either. That’s just one of the damaging messages a lack of representation is sending.

Those sorts of messages, on repeat, day after day, can be incredibly harmful to the identity and self-worth of people with disabilities. 

Secondly, I’d like to address the inclusion of disability from a business perspective.

Like many people with disabilities, I too am a loyal consumer with a disposable income and will support brands that include and represent me.

As I said in my most recent TEDx pitch, a 20% market share is an enormous one not to capitalise on.

So, back to Australian Fashion Week. Maybe next year we should hold the event in Brisbane because Sydney clearly isn’t keeping up. Times are changing and so should Australian Fashion Week.