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Does fashion care about disabled people and the purple pound?

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 charity’s 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 – one of London’s most expensive areas to shop – 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 (“should you need any help in the future”) 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. Purple’s Mark Flint explains that the initiative aims to “transform thinking” and “illustrate that becoming disability-friendly is not just morally right, but makes complete business sense”. 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 “having conversations” with a number of brands. It’s not exactly a resounding yes.

Britain’s 11.9 million disabled people are acknowledged to have a spending power of £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 £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. “Recently, I was trying to help my little sister buy a dress for a dance,” says Quin, a 19-year-old wheelchair user from Canterbury, “but 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 there’s an attitude that disabled people would never come in. We need and want things just the same as abled people.”

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. “It’s often an anxious experience, as you don’t know how you will be treated by shop staff, and, when people tend to be negative rather than helpful, it’s easier not to go out and shop online [instead]”.

Lily, a 22-year-old from south-east England, doesn’t use any aids such as a wheelchair, so it’s not always clear she has a disability. “When I’m at the till and struggling to get money out because my left hand doesn’t work as well as my right, I feel embarrassed. I usually apologise even if I know I shouldn’t.” 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 industry’s 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 Vogue’s new editor, has expressed frustration with the industry’s reluctance to create sustainable changes in reflecting the diverse identities of its consumers. His principles on ethnic diversity – “you put one model in a show or in an ad campaign, that doesn’t solve the problem”– also apply to disability representation. Although some designers have embraced disability models – most notably Alexander McQueen in the late 90s – 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.

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Debate surrounding the use of disabled models was reignited at Teatum Jones’s 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 label’s AW17 collection presented disability models as emblems of a backlash against ideas of the perfect form: “Why do we look at ourselves in the mirror and see ugly instead of valuable? What are you looking at?” bellowed the disabled motivational speaker Nick Vujičić on the soundtrack. After reading reports describing the show as a “spectacle” and “attention-grabbing”, 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: “Imagine telling a group of people that they were not allowed into your retail space because you hadn’t thought it through in the design stage? Or because you simply forgot about them or didn’t consider their spending power? You’d feel pretty awful, and so would they.” They observed that, although many designers strategically position themselves as radical: “when a fashion audience is actually faced with the reality of physical difference, there is sometimes tendency to feel uncomfortable”.While the designers don’t 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: “This should be a conversation about inclusivity, after all.”

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