British high street's first disabled model is coming to a shop window near you

Debenhams to feature images of wheelchair user in Oxford Street branch

Jerome Taylor
Thursday 25 February 2010 01:00

A woman who uses a wheelchair is to become the first disabled model on the British high street when she is featured in a department store's window display.

Shannon Murray, a model and actress, recently finished a photo shoot for Debenhams which will be displayed in the retailer's flagship Oxford Street store in the next week, The Independent has learned.

The announcement will be welcome news to campaigners who have long argued that the fashion industry and high street retailers too readily forgo variety in favour of pinning their clothes on skinny models who bear little resemblance to the average British woman.

A spokesperson for Debenhams refused to confirm any details yesterday, but sources within the fashion industry said Murray's photographs were taken last week and would feature clothing from the chain's relaunched Principles range.

"The shoot has taken place and the photos are absolutely fabulous," said one source. "I really believe this is a genuine step towards having a much greater variety of faces fronting campaigns on the high street."

The campaign is designed in conjunction with the latest series of Channel 4's How to Look Good Naked, the award-winning fashion show hosted by Gok Wan which encourages women of all shapes and sizes to strip off and love their bodies. Wan's latest series, which began airing last month, is celebrating disabled women and later episodes will follow Murray's journey.

The Debenhams spokesperson was willing to confirm that the chain had been working with producers of How to Look Good Naked and had recently been out filming with them.

In the comparatively small world of disabled modelling Murray, 32, is regarded as a pioneer. She was confined to a wheelchair at the age of 14 after she broke her neck during a family holiday to Lanzarote. But she remained determined to make it as a model.

In 1994 she won the first modelling competition for disabled women. It was organised by Louise Dyson, an equally unconventional fashionista who runs VisABLEModels, one of the few agencies that specialises in finding work for disabled models. She has since become one of VisABLE's most recognisable talents with a string of modelling and television shows under her belt as well as a law degree.

VisABLE yesterday said neither it nor Murray was permitted to talk about the upcoming Debenhams campaign. But on her blog the 32-year-old model revealed how nervous she had become at the prospect of fronting a major high street brand. "I've been modelling for over 14 years but this was different," she wrote on the day of the shoot.

"It is a first and as I was getting ready in hair and make-up, the potential of this shoot suddenly struck me – another small step towards inclusion and representation. I hope the images challenge a few misconceptions about disability; it's been a long time coming."

Unlike other high street stores, Debenhams is showing an increasing willingness to inject some variety into the people modelling its clothes, particularly its new Principles range, which it bought the rights to when the firm went into administration last year.

Last week the clothing chain announced that it would trial size-16 mannequins in some of its stores. The majority of women in Britain are size 14 or 16 but almost all store mannequins are size 10 or below. Debenhams itself sells 42 per cent of its clothes at sizes 14 and 16. Models on the catwalk, meanwhile, constitute an even smaller demographic and are usually between sizes 6 and zero.

Disability campaigners yesterday welcomed the new approach but warned that stores should continue to vary their mannequins and avoid one-off publicity gimmicks.

"As long as the campaign is more than just a brief moment of tokenism then I think it should be welcomed," said Clair Lewis, from the Direct Action Network, which has picketed high street stores that refuse to install access for disabled people. "Britain is a varied placed filled with women of different sizes and ethnic backgrounds. The models and high street windows should reflect that variety but all too often they don't."

Disability on television

Kelly Marie Stewart

Currently on maternity leave, Stewart has made waves as the first permanent member of Hollyoaks to have a disability. She, and her character Hayley, suffer from Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Cherylee Houston

Coronation Street was the first British soap to regularly feature a disabled character with deaf actress Ali Briggs. Now it has Houston who, in April, will play a fiery love interest called Izzy.

Cerrie Burnell

Her arrival as a CBeebies presenter provoked a row when parents complained her appearance might scare children. She was born with part of an arm missing. She dismissed them as "small-minded".

Peter White

The BBC's disability affairs correspondent was the first totally blind person to produce reports for television news. He first broadcast for the BBC in 1971 and is the presenter of two Radio 4 shows.

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