Fashion breaks the last taboo

Cayte Williams
Friday 28 August 1998 00:02 BST

Style magazines don't often change the way we think.

But a feature on clothes designed for people with

disabilities is causing quite a stir.

The photographer Nick Knight, Alexander McQueen, the fashion designer and Jefferson Hack, a magazine editor, have collaborated to produce a photoshoot which breaks down one of the last bastions of body fascism.

"Accessable", a 14-page feature in the style magazine Dazed & Confused, shows people with disabilities looking powerful and beautiful in designer clothes. "In a world where the mainstream concept of what is and isn't beautiful becomes increasingly narrow," reads the introduction, "you have to be young, you have to be thin, you should preferably be blonde, and of course, pale skinned."

Aimee Mullens, a blonde, delicate woman with two artificial legs, models a woolen fan jacket and a suede T-shirt by Alexander McQueen; Helen Mcintosh, a person of restricted growth, wears a tweed draped dress by Roland Mouret, while Mat Fraser, a thalidomide man with a shaved head, wears a pleated waistcoat by Catherine Blades. Each person's attractiveness and spirit shines through, and sometimes it is quite difficult to see what their disability is. There is no victim culture here.

In late 1997, McQueen decided that he wanted to start a project with people with disabilities. He and his stylist, Katy England, began contacting disability organisations throughout the country and received an overwhelming response. More than 50 people wanted to be involved, and from that they selected eight. "Ninety nine per cent of the organisations we contacted were positive," says England. "It took a lot of explaining, because of people's impressions of the fashion industry. They were immediately sceptical and wondered why we would want to do it. We had to break down those barriers with them and be very honest."

Other designers involved in the project included Hussein Chalayan, Philip Treacy and Commes des Garcons. To get the clothes right, each designer was paired with a disabled person so that each model's personality was reflected in the clothes.

It is possible that McQueen's idea is a head of creative steam he has let out after a year of producing clothes for perfect, rich, privileged women. But McQueen has always had an eye for what is different. "When we started we were only interested in individuality and originality when choosing models, and perhaps this is taking it a little bit further," says England.

The spread's photographer, Nick Knight, is also no stranger to pushing the boundaries of fashion photography. He was the first person to photograph the size 14 model Sophie Dahl, for the fashion bible Visionaire. His pictures of the size 16 model Sara Morrisson for Vogue in 1997 caused the fashion world to gaze at its pancake-flat navel for all of 15 seconds. He also used octogenarian ranchers for his Levi's Red Tab campaign in August 1996. There are those who think that Knight is making the fashion industry aware of body fascism, although that may not be the main reason for his work.

Many believe he is exorcising his demons. He has always expressed a hatred of violence and his photographs for the Spanish publication Big in May 1997 were so graphic that the magazine had to carry a warning label.

So what do those outside the fashion industry think of the Dazed & Confused photographs? "As an organisation, we want to change society's attitudes to disabled people," says Karen Edmunds, director of Glad (the Greater London Association for Disabled People). "They have the right to do what everyone else does, and it's really good that a magazine such as Dazed & Confused is producing a positive image like this.

"Most people's views of a disabled person is of someone helpless in a wheelchair, or someone they have to help across the road. People don't even see the disabled on television, so to see them in less stereotypical roles in a fashion magazine is wonderful. Disabled people want to look as attractive as anyone else does, so why can't they wear nice clothes?"

Tim Johnson is a 33-year-old architect who lost his arm in a traffic accident when he was 15. "I think Dazed & Confused has taken a great big risk with this photoshoot," he says, "but I think it has paid off. I don't have a clue who Alexander McQueen or Nick Knight are, but I think they've handled it very sensitively."

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