When I was seven years old I was given a 'wheelchair Barbie'—that Barbie was a librarian. I remember feeling entirely different to her even though she was designed to be like me. I didn't want to be within dark corners of a library, I wanted to be Malibu Barbie, Adventure Barbie, but those Barbies were never designed as wheelchair users.
It was then I discovered that having a disability would assign me with an identity by default: I was not expected to be like other women, because I was not designed like them.
At New Zealand Fashion Week I thought of Wheelchair Barbie, because a part of me knew that I was not designed to be here; for years fashion has been seen as the home of Malibu Barbie, a woman who is blonde, skinny, tall, able-bodied, and white. I am not designed like Malibu Barbie. I was afraid there would not be space for me in an environment where I break every mould.
Society likes to say that we're progressing to be more accepting of diversity, but would that be true at Fashion Week?
As I entered I saw a tall African woman. She had ripped jeans and a turtleneck that covered her mouth. I hoped this wasn't a metaphor. I hoped diversity within these walls wouldn't be met with silence. I was two runway shows deep when I started thinking this might be the case. I was greeted time and time again with a face and body I knew so well, but am so different to: skinny, tall, blonde.
I took my seat at Katherine Victoria, bracing for another conveyer belt of models on repeat, but that didn't happen. The women who walked on her runway were Indian, Asian, and white. Their makeup was made up of bright colours, and they stood out.
I realised by midday, as I watched the New Generation show, that I was probably going to be the only wheelchair user at New Zealand Fashion Week. I thought back to Wheelchair Barbie and I wondered what people thought of me, being here. The New Generation show ripped me away from my thoughts. Each designer in that show was new, different, and fresh. Every piece that came down the runway in that show I could imagine someone I knew wearing, I could imagine myself in. These were clothes designed for more than just one kind of person.
I was no longer afraid that diversity and progress were ball-gagged in a corner backstage—I could see specks of progress wherever I looked. In the rounded pink glasses of the woman I queued with, in the perfectly applied makeup that my friend Zakk wore, and in the way that I was embraced.
From the outside looking in, the fashion industry is seen as a place of division, a place where if you don't fit in, you're nothing, and that's how I saw it my whole childhood. The fashion industry was never somewhere I thought I could exist or succeed, but I was wrong. Progress is happening. You might blink and miss it, but it is there. It is in the face of Mercy Brewer, a 60-year-old model for Andrea Moore who got everybody talking.
I saw the girl in the turtleneck that covered her mouth again. She was on the runway. She was a model.
The conveyer belt undoubtedly dominates the industry—this was true for most of the shows I attended today—but the face of women in fashion is changing, gradually. Those who do not fit the mould of Malibu Barbie, but are brave enough to enter into the fashion world anyway are the ones who can shake it up and break down the conveyer belt.
See more from Gathum here.