Rex Features / AP

The disabled models of New York Fashion Week

A look at the people challenging body type prejudice

It is a rare sight at New York Fashion Week: a crowd rising to its feet, loudly cheering a model making his or her way down the runway. 

But it happens repeatedly at the FTL Moda shows, an Italian fashion “platform” that brings designers together to show their collections in a kind of cooperative setting. Almost everything about FTL’s shows is, suffice it to say, less than traditional, from the setting, The Angel Orensanz Foundation, a former synagogue turned event space on the Lower East Side, to the clothes.

But especially the models.

Shaholly Ayers is a congenital amputee, born without her right arm. Ayers has been modeling for 10 years and this is her third season walking in an FTL Moda Show. Not surprisingly, realizing her dream has been a bit of a battle, until, she says, she found the right agency. “It’s been really difficult for me to break into the industry,” she said. “I ended up networking, working with makeup artists, and building my own portfolio. I met Global Disability Inclusion, and they really helped escalate my career.”

GDI works with major corporations to make workplaces more disabled-friendly. It now partners with FTL Moda on fashion shows and photo shoots around the world to bring what they call “diversely abled” models into the mainstream.

Models like Madeline Stuart. She’s only been modeling since last April, but has been in near-constant demand. Madeline is 19, from Brisbane, Australia, and has Down Syndrome. Her mom, Roseanne, is her spokesperson, constant companion, head cheerleader and best friend. She says Madeline’s road to the runway wasn’t that hard to navigate. “Last year, she told me she wanted to do modeling,” Roseanne said. “I took her in to get professional photos done, I put them on the internet and they just went completely viral, and then people just started contacting us and asking her to do photo shoots, asking her to advertise products.”

They were contacted by three companies in September, asking if Maddy, as her mom calls her, would work with them. She went with FTL Moda because they seem most determined to make a difference, to promote diversity on the catwalk. “Everything we do is for charity,” she said. “If we align ourselves with commercial products, it has to be a positive thing for women and for people in general.”

Ilaria Niccolini started FTL Moda in 2006 simply to showcase fashion. But as the company grew, she felt it needed to do more. Since 2013, she says, “we have been working to include diversity at the highest level.” They stage their shows in New York, Paris, Milan, Rome and Miami, and starting next season, they’ll be showing in Tokyo. “It used to be more difficult,” Niccolini said. “but now, it’s becoming easier. They’re finally beginning to see that there are a lot of paradigms there that can actually be broken. What was once scary or uncomfortable to see or experience, especially when you just sit down to enjoy a runway show, now they realize that not only is it not scary, but it is also, I would say emotional, it’s pretty, it’s exciting. We just want to make a connection with whoever is sitting there, if it’s an editor or a blogger, it doesn’t matter, we just want to create a strong connection so that everyone can embrace what’s going on.” 

That connection is what draws some designers to FTL Moda, as well. Boston-based Josefa DaSilva featured Madeline Stuart on her runway, along with other non-traditional models, saying they fit in perfectly with her design inspiration, healing crystals. “They have been cultivating and teach us to be very loving toward everyone, not just a group of people, but everyone,” she said. “I thought, why not incorporate that in my designs? It’s supposed to be very loving and have compassion for our purpose for everyone in the world. That’s why you saw a lot of models over there who were not traditional models, they were plus size models, they were not that high fashion model that we would see in the industry.”

For models like Madeline, it’s the chance to do something her mother says she was born to do. “Modeling is about walking and looking pretty and posing and Madeline’s been brought up to really love herself,” Roseanne said. “Because I’ve always told her how wonderful she is. There’s no inhibition, there’s no nervousness, nothing. She’s just getting her hair and makeup done and showing the world how to be natural, and she does it so perfectly.”

But, while Madeline will travel the world over the next months, walking runways and posing for pictures, even acting as the face for clothing and makeup companies, her mother insists it isn’t about modeling at all. “Madeline does modeling because that’s her platform and we can raise awareness, so people don’t feel isolated,” she said. “But this is about charity, this is about inclusion, this is about diversity. This is about every parent out there who has a child with a disability that feels like they’re alone. They can see Madeline’s face outside and she’s got just as many opportunities as anyone else. It’s for everyone who’s ever been bullied at school because they feel different. They look at Madeline now and it gives them hope. It’s a vehicle, basically, to get our word out, to try to make the world a better place.” 

That sentiment is echoed by most of the models at FTL Moda, including Shaholly Ayers. “As far as I know, this is the only show that has such a diverse group of models,” she said. The first show that I walked in, they had wheelchair models. It’s phenomenal because beauty is in so many looks. They’re able to show that at FTL Moda, and it’s so special to be a part of that.” It’s also, she said, about being a role model as well as a runway model. “I have a lot of followers on my fan pages that are children looking at me and saying, I have someone like me. When I was growing up, I didn’t have that at all. I think people need that.”

According to Niccolini, FTL Moda will continue with its runway schedule, but they’re also moving more into editorials, with upcoming spreads for what she calls top magazines around the world. They will, of course, include diverse models, some using bionics, some wearing prosthetics because, she said, “that’s what the real industry today wants in terms of fashion, art and culture.”

And her pride continues to come from the men and women who are getting a chance to do something they never would have done without FTL Moda — model. “That’s why I strive to make this really beautiful, she said. “What actually inspired me I think is that we are in a world nowadays where there is beauty everywhere, and I think, especially now, with social media, we see more and more often stereotyped images. And instead, there’s so much to see and discover. I think that’s what inspires me, to be able to give voice and give a stage to whoever deserves it.”

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