Wednesday, 28 September 2016


After the panel had closed, I got my opportunity to ask three burning questions to the two ladies in the media, who were best placed to tell me what I wanted to know...

Parsons School of Design encourages its students to create convertible garments that can change the world. How do you think that we could create a feat like that here; do you think All Walks could do something like that, and what do you think it would take for the big fashion houses to follow suit? 

Caryn Franklin MBE
Caryn Franklin MBE: "I think the key things for all creatives to know, is that they influence thinking. Art is where we can really challenge boundaries, push boundaries. And so if we're talking about designs for the body - I mean Parsons might be talking about a whole range of design from product design to structural building design, all kinds of things, I'm not sure but, if we're applying it to the body, what we've really got to think about is empowering the wearer. Now many designers think that they're doing that, but maybe there's a sort of unspoken element - the white elephant in the room if you like - where they're not looking at the uniqueness of people's bodies, and the diversity of people's bodies; and so empowering someone who has the shape of a catwalk model, who has been on a very strict diet, and has a very freakish body shape is one way that they use their skills, but actually, that's not their market. Their wider market is ordinary human beings who deserve recognition of their difference.

I think that's one of the hardest things for designers, to think about how they apply their skills. Many designers don't have a skillset to work across a diverse range of bodies, because they've never been taught how to do that. So a lot of designers come out of college having never really worked on a voluptuous body; they don't know how to design for breasts and hips, they don't necessarily know how to design for an older body, they don't know where the change is that that body goes through in age. And so rather than expose themselves as not able to design for those types of bodies, let alone other types of bodies - as you know, a wheelchair presents its own challenges to do with fastenings, and places where the garment needs to lie flat against the body - and these are things that they again, don't know, unless they've been able to educate themselves. 

So one of the things that I've been doing as Director of All Walks is to say that designers can acquire a broader range of skills - we're not suggesting that all these skills be forced upon every single designer; but that by bringing designers closer to an understanding of who their customer will be, and appreciating their own physical difference - because most designers are really able to grasp this very quickly - they don't look catwalk models, so why are they designing for catwalk models? Female designers get that quite quickly, and begin to look at how they can contribute their skills to making humankind feel good.

One of the projects that we found really early success for was The ICON Project that we did at Edinburgh, on a regular basis with Mal Burkinshaw, who was the Director of the Diversity network that we helped set up. He said to his students 'I want you to choose someone to work with, who simply does not embody your average catwalk shape, and I want you to get to know about them as a human being, and what it is that they need from fashion, and what fashion could do for them. And the students all cite that; they made amazing garments, and they had a brilliant catwalk show with all of the people that they'd picked. Some were working with their Grandmothers, some just ran after people that they saw in the street. And they said that it was one of the most educative experiences that they'd had. So we feel that all design colleges could really pick up that and open up an awareness for design students.

But I think that other creatives as well need to get on board. One of the other projects we had done was with photographers to say that being conscious about the way you portray clothes - always just thinking that the only right way, is just a tall, thin, white, young woman, is again, operating in a very closed mindset. We brought scientific studies to the table, to say that studies show that consumers are looking to engage in relatability with the person that they see in the image, and if they can see shared characteristics between themselves and that model, they're more likely to move towards intention to purchase. So all of those things are what industry needs to grasp. I do believe that design can contribute towards wellbeing, mental health, our perception of ourselves, our experience of ourselves; and I don't believe that it's superficial. I do believe that creatives are hugely influential."

Charlotte Gush and Yours Truly
Charlotte Gush: "I think All Walks is really specifically focused on diversity, and that's amazing that someone is finally making clothing specifically to deal with the issues faced by homeless people. All Walks actually does work in Universities up and down the Country, I think there are about 37 Universities that take part in 'Diversity Now'; which is a national student competition that kind of challenges students to show us their vision of what a diverse fashion future would look like. A lot of the tutors who have really gotten in to it have kind of paired the students up with muses from their community; and part of the project is that they speak to this woman about what she needs, and so I know that Edinburgh college have really taken to this, and they had a group of women come in. There was a pregnant woman, there was a woman in a wheelchair, there was a woman who was older, and had difficulty walking; and so the students worked individually with them, to create fashion that worked for them. 

So I think our student programme is already making those things, and Mal Burkinshaw, who is the Director of the Diversity programme that All Walks and Edinburgh College of Arts set up, is really leading the way on driving those kind of student projects. In terms of big designers, they kind of already do; we have to remember that all we see is the catwalk, so there are problems with just seeing their catwalk collections; actually a lot of big designers, particularly the really big ones, make their money making bespoke clothes for actresses on the red carpet, but also rich women who may be united in their wealth, but are diverse in their bodies and their needs. So actually, the original aim of a Couturier, is really to work with a woman and her body, and make something that works for her. But those principles could definitely be more represented in the catwalk fashion that we see."

Is there a future in disabled fashion as well as plus-sized?

Caryn Franklin MBE: "I think there's a future in anything where there's a niche market. If there's enough people to support the economics of a market, then there's a future. I don't know what the percentage of people who have bodily difference is, what their needs might be, and whether they are a wide variety of needs, or whether they can be narrowed down to something that can be mass-produced; because that's obviously where the financial interest would be. I don't know whether designers have yet looked at that market as a viable market? I certainly know from speaking to people for whom clothes are an important part of their identity that they've used clothes to say much more about themselves than their physical presence can. But we all do that - when I get out of bed, there's a whole process of choices that I make in order to leave the house and present myself as I want people to see me. Turning up to an important job, just sort of rolling out in pyjamas - people wouldn't read us in the right way, from our hair, to the way we presented our skin, to the way we presented our uniform, or our clothing.

I met an amazing woman, Louise Wedderburn, she had a Channel 4 programme made about her, and I think I met her four or five years back, because she has a rare condition that solidifies all her bones and her joints to the point where she simply has no flexibility. And she said that she made a conscious choice to dress in such a highly visible, noticeable way, by really being into fashion, and really having her own take on it - she was very interested in the trends - that when people looked at her, as they did all the time; she could say to herself that they were probably looking at her clothes, they were interested in her style, and that she could feel that they were taking information about who she was from her clothes, as opposed to stereotyping her because of her disability. That was a huge teaching, to see the power of clothes.

I often feel that the designers are fighting to say 'look, we do want to do good things, we do care...' but then they keep using this template and this format. They don't quite know how to say 'we do care'. Were they to start emboldening people with physical difference in such a way that we could begin to see ourselves differently through the use of clothes, and stop stereotyping each other, that would be a brilliant service they could provide. They could do one-offs on the catwalk; and they could say that they could be made to order, but then it would be very hard to do something in a bespoke way, and then just get all the stores to order it and roll it out, it's very, very hard. But they could make a stand if they wanted to."

Charlotte Gush: "Yeah, absolutely - there are disabled people who need clothes! Correct me if I'm wrong - and I think I'm not - but disabled people want to look great the same as anyone else; so I think it's an interesting thing in that a lot of fashion, and some of the problems of fashion, is that it's all done in economies of scale, and that's why we have women in Bangladesh working themselves into the ground sometimes, to make those clothes cheap, cheap, cheap, and mass produce stuff. But what we absolutely need is for businesses to see that there is a customer there, and business needs to see that making clothes that work for a diverse range of people makes business sense, as well as ethical sense.

I saw some amazing designs of someone who had made really chic coats that stopped at the lower back, and came around into a train at the front, so that it wouldn't get in the way of a wheelchair, for someone who was sitting down, so I think there are definitely designers who are taking it into account; we should see more of it on the high street and in high fashion, and I think the visibility of women like Jillian Mercado, the woman who modelled for Diesel; the more we see people like that in high fashion advertising, the more people  realise ok, obviously cool people like her, who just happen to be in a wheelchair, also want fashion that works for them. So I hope we do, and I think if fashion businesses are sensible, they'll realise that there is an opportunity there."

Do you think certain areas of Diversity are more accepted than others?

Caryn Franklin MBE: "Yeah, I think as we get to the stage where we're breaking down more and more boundaries, people become more open, and it takes time. So if we give ourselves an example of how society, on the whole, is quite unprogressive in many ways...Fifty years ago, if you weren't married and you had a child, that was extremely challenging for society, and the woman who was expecting a child was shamed. We've got over that boundary. There are some elements of racism that we now call out, and the person who is promoting or embodying that racism is shamed, not the person who is their target. We've got over that.

There's still a long way to go, with many things, with racism, with sexism, with ageism; we're at an exciting place for understanding gender right now, that there isn't a binary system for gender, and gender variance is something we all need to get our heads around. I think people are doing that very quickly and I'm really excited by that. Interestingly, that's an area where fashion has helped. Fashion has promoted gender variant models - see whatever fashion does, it gives it a cool factor. So fashion's found gender variance very interesting - partly because it has a high proportion, I expect of people who are sexually, and gender diverse, looking at its own community. What we don't have in fashion, is a high proportion of women in positions of power, a high proportion of black men and women in positions of power, and a high proportion of people with disabilities in positions of power. It's not really until you get more diversity in decision-making that things will begin to change - that's what I truly believe.

Professor Richard Crisp
There is a psychologist called Professor Richard Crisp who has dedicated twenty years to looking at Diversity, and has designed studies to support the fact that where there is more diversity in decision-making, there is often more creativity, because the brain is being challenged to work in a different way. When we're reducing things to stereotypes and templates, where we're not working in a high proficient way, we're just working in a systematic way, that's when we're our least creative. So I would have thought that challenging ourselves to think in a more diverse way is what every creative would like, and is the future."

Charlotte Gush: "Yeah, I do; I've been working with All Walks Beyond The Catwalk for six years, and one of the things that has niggled at me in that time, is that Diversity is a conversation now, and that's a wonderful thing; we can see a black model in a high fashion thing, we can see an older woman, we can see a disabled woman, but it seems to me that you can't be two of those things (AMEN! - ES), so I think that kind of proves to me that we have only made slight progress. You don't see many older, black models; you do see older models, but they're predominantly white, and they're predominantly thin. 

I think that's a real litmus test in how far we've come in accepting diversity, and I hope we can start to change that; that's exactly why I wanted to emphasise the feminist voices that we hear, because intersectionality is something that feminism has begun to grapple with in a way that this kind of like, hot celebrity diversity initiative has not. Feminism is a critique of the male gaze, and I think a lot of diversity in fashion has hinged on 'Well she's still fuckable' and I think that's really problematic, that we're accepting diversity still through the lens of what men find fuckable - that's not radical, and we need to move into a much more radical position where we see beauty through other lenses, and make our own lenses."

That's it for Part Deux folks, I hope you enjoyed the insightful answers from these fascinating women! For the final part in this monster three-part instalment, find yourself back here Monday, 3 October, where we go visual with the remainder of the day. See the Ryan LO retrospective, read about the shenanigans in Lea Anderson's choreographed dance troupe; see the People's Catwalk where someone you might recognise took a turn, and finally, stay tuned for what the gorgeous MAC Twins had to say about Diversity. Over and out!

Until the next...

Photos courtesy of EricaSharlette for EricaSharlette Promotions Ltd., All Walks Beyond The Catwalk, Edinburgh College of Art, and Aston University.