Fashion

Robyn Lambird On Where Fashion Diversity Lacks In Australia

It has the power to unify us by showcasing our differences.
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Fashion is a beautiful thing. It’s a type of art form that has the ability to bring us closer together, while also championing our differences.

Despite having such a rich and diverse catalogue of fashion and models to choose from, there remains a lack of representation in the media when it comes to all kinds of lived experiences; specially, the experiences of those with a disability.

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It should be a surprise to no one that the fashion and modelling industries have been historically ableist. 

What is ableism?

Ableism refers to when able-bodied people are considered the norm and thus favoured over those with a disability.

From the tendency to champion able-bodied models, to the complete neglect of things like wheelchair access in runway shows, to not making clothes for all types of bodies, the examples of fashion ableism seem infinite.

Someone who has seen first hand how ableism manifests in the fashion world is 24-year-old queer and non-binary model and Paralympian Robyn Lambird.

After being diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was nine years old, Robyn has lived her life in a wheelchair. Originally from the UK, the model and athlete moved to Perth 13 years ago. 

When they are not training for the 2021 Paralympics, for which they made the qualifying round with the official team to be announced in July, Robyn spends their time modelling. From being the first person in a wheelchair to be featured in one of Target’s active-wear campaigns, to modelling for Tommy Hilfiger, Bonds, ModiBodi and more, the 24-year-old certainly has had their fair share of experience in the gruelling industry.

For Robyn, the determination to break into the fashion world was a driving force in their career.

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Robyn’s determination to break into the fashion industry was a driving force in their career. (Credit: Instagram)

“I’ve always been interested in fashion and style,” Robyn tells Girlfriend exclusively. “I think, growing up, that was something that was cultivated in my household, being interested in clothes and looking different.

“And then I sort of started to build a social media presence a little while back and I noticed there was a real gap in the market for people with disabilities in the fashion industry and representation for people with disabilities with cool style. So I sort of started showcasing that on my social media and then from that got involved more directly with modelling opportunities.”

Despite being well aware of the ableist knock backs that would accompany the career path, the now 24-year-old says they were “so determined to change it” that nothing could hold them back from entering the modelling world.

“I think I was just so determined to change it and see people represented. One in Five people has some kind of disability and we surely don’t see that represented in media and in fashion, so I think that determination sort of drove me,” Robyn explains.

When it comes to representation, the Paralympian suggests that fashion is an incredible medium in which to amplify diverse experiences, as it can be so unifying. 

“I think that’s the amazing thing about fashion and clothes and the media; it’s the kind of the thing that brings people together. A lot of people have interest in clothes and in fashion so that’s sort of the unifying factor and if we can include people with disabilities in that I think it will go a long way in normalising disabilities.”

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Australian Fashion Week recently came under fire after the closing show provided inadequate wheelchair access. (Credit: Getty)

So how can the industry be more inclusive?

Robyn wants to witness brands implementing tangible and long-term strategies which actively work to champion diversity.

“I think we need to see more brands coming out with accessible options and brands being willing to showcase disability – not just as a one-off thing but making a commitment to do it actively. We don’t want the tokenistic, once-every-few-years someone’s in a line-up,” Robyn says.

The good news is that the model is optimistic about the future of the industry, telling us, “I think things are getting better. We are seeing people with disabilities represented in things like fashion week and stuff like that. There’s more brands that are coming online with adaptive ranges such as Tommy Hilfiger.”

And yet, as musical icon Olivia Rodrigo puts it, it’s always one step forward and three steps back. During this year’s fashion week in Australia, a wheelchair inaccessible runway was used in the closing show featuring designs from Camilla Franks and Pip Edwards, prompting models in wheelchairs to struggle to manoeuvre across the streamer-ridden stage. 

Camilla has since released a statement claiming that the designers were not involved in the set design. 

WATCH: Australian Fashion Week show slammed for not being inclusive

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It’s clear we still have a long way to go when it comes to true inclusivity. And Robyn agrees.

“With that one in five [people with a disability], I’d like to see that sort of represented,” the model tells Girlfriend. “I don’t think it should be making news when someone with a disability is in a campaign. It shouldn’t be something special it should just sort of be expected. We are still seeing pride celebrations for example which aren’t accessible, or there’s still not that much visibility within the parades, so it would be great to see that sort of improved.”

If intersectionality has taught us anything, it’s important that media representation doesn’t minimise someone’s experience to one aspect of their “identity”. 

Robyn, for instance, previously told Syrup magazine that “when you’re disabled, you’re labelled as that… so people don’t even consider that disabled people are sexual beings and have a range of different sexualities and gender identities”.

Today, the model thinks that social media has helped people “take control of their own narrative and showcase the part of their personalities that they want to”. However, they acknowledge that there are still strides to be made.

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Robyn is currently training for the 2021 Paralympics. (Credit: Instagram)

Throughout their incredible modelling career, Robyn insists that their campaign with Target remains a highlight. And for a very good reason.

“I did an active-wear campaign with Target and that was the first time an adult with a disability in a wheelchair was featured in a nation-wide campaign. I think that was sort of a step in the right direction,” they explain.

However, Robyn laments the fact that these sorts of campaigns aren’t more prominent in the media sphere, saying “it’s a shame that since then there hasn’t been an explosion of that kind of stuff”.

And yet, the Paralympian remains optimistic about the future of the industry overall, having just signed with the country’s leading diversity modelling agency, Bella Management. 

“I think recently being signed with Bella that’s a real positive step for me and an agency like that is committed to diversity not just in different shapes and sizes but also in different abilities as well.”

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