Alexander McQueen asked some of fashion’s leading designers to dress people with physical disabilities. His aim? Not to change the world, but to challenge our perceptions of beauty. By Susannah Frankel
`W hat do you think?” asks Aimee Mullins. “Pretty funky, isn’t it?” It is, on the face of it, just like any other studio fashion shoot: lights so hot and bright they make little black spots appear in front of your eyes, obligatory thumping trip-hop soundtrack, hair and make-up artists dropping in and out of the frame to make sure the model – beautiful and bored for the duration – looks just so. The difference is that 22-year-old Mullins was born without fibula bones in her shins. Both her legs were amputated below the knee when she was just one-year-old, a decision her parents made when doctors told them that otherwise she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
“These are my sprinting legs,” explains Mullins, a confident and expressive brown-eyed blonde who ran in the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta and holds world records in her class for the 100m and 200m sprint, and the long jump. “They’re based on a cheetah’s foot.” C-shaped and highly sprung in gleaming metal, Mullins’ legs certainly make for sensational viewing. Running in them is one thing, however, standing still in them for any amount of time, quite another. Throughout the shoot, Mullins is supported from behind when wearing them for all but the taking of the picture itself – she can walk on the track in her sprinting legs, but not on the pavement.
For everyday life, she wears what she describes as her “pretty” legs: “very long, delicate, slim legs. Like a Barbie’s. ” Of course, the standard argument against Barbie is that she is a dangerous stereotype, a (male) fantasy figure and, as such, one women wouldn’t necessarily aspire to. For Mullins, however, this idea is liberating rather than limiting. She’s very proud of her pretty legs. She will later be photographed in them, styled, with her full co-operation, to look like a decidedly dilapidatedVictorian doll.
Aimee Mullins is being photographed for the cover of the September issue of Dazed & Confused magazine, guest edited by Alexander McQueen. Central to the issue is a fashion shoot featuring eight different subjects, each with physical disabilities. McQueen has worked with some of the world’s most forward-thinking designers and, significantly, those who experiment with form and construction as well as just surface (including Comme des Garons, Hussein Chalayan, Owen Gaster, Roland Mouret and the milliner Philip Treacy – all of whom have collaborated with, and dressed, one subject).
McQueen’s choice of photographer is apposite. Nick Knight was responsible for the famous Levi’s campaign featuring models (male and female) in their seventies and eighties. He also took the pictures of “voluptuous” unknown Sara Morrison in Vogue, and it was Knight and McQueen who launched the career of size-14 model Sophie Dahl. With McQueen art directing, Knight photographed her for the first time for i-D magazine.
Despite what might seem like an agenda to expand upon the media’s limited vision of what is and isn’t beautiful, McQueen insists gruffly: “I’m not doing this to save the world or anything. I suppose the idea is to show that beauty comes from within. You look at all the mainstream magazines, from GQ to Company to Vogue, and it’s all about the beautiful people, all of the time. I wouldn’t swap these people I’ve been working with for a supermodel. They’ve got so much dignity, and there’s not a lot of dignity in high fashion. I think they’re all really beautiful. I just wanted them to be treated like everyone else.”
Mullins explains: “My whole life, I’ve looked down and I’ve seen these big, ugly foam things.” Previously, her legs were lumpen creations, the standard composite of plastic and wood, covered in foam, which dented every time she leaned on a hard surface. “Now I see toes, I can paint them. I see hair follicles.” There are even little blue veins around the heel of the foot, which remains permanently and unnaturally arched: Mullins’s pretty legs are specifically designed to be worn with two-inch heels; without them, they don’t function.
Such aesthetically appealing concerns come only at a price, though. Mullins’s legs, designed specially for her, cost about 5 000 apiece. She is currently campaigning across America for more innovation in designing prosthetics and bringing legs that are aesthetically pleasing, like her own, into widespread use.
“You go to Madame Tussauds and see a waxwork of Jerry Hall that looks exactly like her, so why can’t something be done for people who really need it? After all, people have been walking around with one leg since the pirates.” Prosthetic legs, she continues, are nearly always designed with function and practicality rather than appearance in mind.
“Why shouldn’t I be able to wear skirts and high heels if I want to? If I’d had these legs when I was an adolescent, my life would have been so different. And if that’s vain, then so be it. I share that vanity with billions of other women.” Mullins was keen to be involved in the McQueen project because it is what she describes as “her mission” to challenge prevailing attitudes towards beauty. “I want to be seen as beautiful because of my disability, not in spite of it. People keep asking me, `Why do you want to get into this world that’s so bitchy and so much about physical perfection?’ That’s why. That’s why I want to do it,” she says.
At 1,8m tall, with an athletic physique and a startlingly handsome face, the only thing that sets Mat Fraser’s appearance apart from stock male-model material is the fact that his upper arms are shortened and he has no forearms. An actor, who works increasingly in the mainstream, he nonetheless described himself as “Mat Fraser: Thalidomide Ninja” in a flyer for a reading that took place last month.
He agreed to take part in the project, he says, because, “I’m so fucked off with body fascism. We’re all taught that fat women can’t be sexy, that hairy women can’t be fashionable. But forget the PC bollocks. The fundamental issue here is that we, as disabled people, are invisible, we’re suffering from apartheid and we’re, most of all, invisible in fashion and advertising. To be given the opportunity to turn the page on that was something I couldn’t refuse.” Fraser anticipates that the shoot may well be disregarded by the disabled community’s radical element, and perhaps by members of the disabled community as a whole.
American-born Mullins is not only unusually open about any disability, but she also unashamedly revels in the surface of fashion imagery, unfazed by whether or not this may seem politically suspect – she has a meeting with one of the world’s most powerful model agents set up for when she returns to America. But, says Fraser, “It’s different for Americans. Disabled access to public buildings has been compulsory there since 1968.
“I know mates will laugh at me when they see this, and say, `Who the hell d’you think you are, Naomi Campbell?’ The fact is, there will always be a fashion world, and we should be changing that from the inside as well as from the outside. You’ve got to declare yourself disabled and beautiful.”
In fact, a large proportion of the disabled community, and many of the organisations dedicated to representing people with physical disabilities, have been involved in the project from the outset, helping provide case studies of potential models, and viewing the endeavour, albeit with caution, as empowering rather than purely sensational.
Any fears there might have been were, at least in part, allayed by the credentials of the main players, who are hardly young upstarts.
Alexander McQueen is debatably the most high-
profile fashion designer in the world. Nick Knight has been responsible for some of the most acclaimed fashion editorials of the past two decades (he recently shot Kate Moss for the front cover of the June issue of British Vogue, and the artwork for Massive Attack’s Mezzanine) as well as more than a few huge advertising campaigns (on display at the moment is his print campaign for Christian Dior couture). For both McQueen and Knight, this project is a labour of love. Independent magazines such as Dazed & Confused don’t have the budget to pay for contributions.
Brenda Ellis, head of policy at Glad (Greater London Association of Disabled People), an organisation that campaigns for rights and choices for people with disabilities across the capital, is just one contact who put McQueen’s office in touch with potential models.
Still, Ellis had her reservations. “I had to be suspicious that it might be a freak- show rather than something about strong disabled people who are proud of their disability,” she says. “But I basically liked the idea. Okay, so it’s only a fashion shoot, but it’s there to raise people’s awareness, and it’s a very useful way of saying that we’re not all pathetic people living miserable lives, which is how society tends to portray us.” It’s no secret that, for fundraising purposes, disabled people are often portrayed as victims. “People raising funds want people to feel sorry for us,” Ellis says. “But that’s not what we want.” Awear (pronounced aware) “an organisation of disabled people and fashion industry professionals seeking to ensure that disabled people get full and direct access to fashionable clothes of their choice” also played a large part in advising on the project.
Apart from any political message that may or may not emerge from the shoot, there is also a far more practical aspect, which is that people with disabilities – much like anyone else who doesn’t fit into so-called standard sizes – have great difficulty finding fashionable clothes. Given that there are 6,5-million people in this country who are registered disabled, Awear not only wants their needs to be catered for, but also realises that they represent serious marketing potential. Because of this, the organisation has now set up the Awear Clothing Forum. The first meeting took place in June at the fashion trade magazine Drapers Record, and was attended by, among others, companies such as Triumph, Littlewoods, Asda, Arcadia (formerly the Burton Group) and Bhs – all of whom, according to Awear, are potentially missing out on up to 10% of the 22-billion a year clothing market.
“One of the main things we want to do is put across positive images of disabled people in fashionable clothing rather than dour images of them in clothing for disabled people,” says Sid Jurka, director of Awear
Not every organisation dedicated to representing the disabled community was this co-operative, however. “I had mixed feelings about it,’ says Ciara Smyth of the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind). “In one sense, no one else had done it, so it’s a good thing in that respect. But the people involved were very idealistic, and part of my worry was that disabled people would end up being exploited.” Smyth did go as far as to show copies of Dazed & Confused to a number of people, parents of 18- and 19-year-old prospective models. “They didn’t feel comfortable with the magazine,” she says. “They thought a lot of the material in it was there to shock.” More importantly, she says, the whole project was supposed to be about inclusivity, “but, by actually choosing a group of people with disabilities and photographing them together, it is reinforcing the myth that they are somehow different or special, thereby also reinforcing prejudice. People with disabilities shouldn’t be sidelined in this way.”
Although everyone who worked on the shoot was anxious that no model should be pressurised into anything that made them feel uncomfortable, when it came to the editing process – and the creative strength of the project as a whole – no feelings were spared.
For Knight’s part: “This was never a shoot that aimed to hide disability. If we’d have done that, we’d only have been adding to any stigma.” More perhaps than anyone else on the project, Knight seems to feel that there is a conscious political statement that needs to be made. “My aim was to push back the boundaries of what is and isn’t beautiful,” he says. “There should be a lot more things like this, but instead of things opening up, they’re getting narrower all the time.” This is hardly surprising: fashion imagery in glossy magazines and advertising campaigns, however directional, is, in the end, about selling clothes. With the amount of money involved becoming ever larger – tens of millions, sometimes even billions, of pounds are at stake – the industry responds by appealing increasingly to the mainstream. Ruffling any feathers is seen as too risky by half.
“To make money,” he says, “the industry is increasingly catering to the lowest common denominator and, as far as the people who run the big companies are concerned, anything even slightly out of the ordinary frightens people.
“Anyone with the slightest brain cell will know that it is the quirkiness and imperfections in a person that attracts other people. That is completely obvious to human beings, it’s just when it gets to a corporate level that it all falls apart.”
The last word goes to Alexander McQueen, a designer who has attracted more than his fair share of controversy in the past. Given that a fashion shoot featuring a model larger than a size 12 makes the headlines, this project is hardly likely to go unnoticed. “I assume people will say I’m doing it for shock value,” he says. “That’s what they always say, and it’s so easy, they’ll have found the easiest possible way of looking at it.” He pauses for a moment, then adds: “I know I’m provocative. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to acknowledge it.”