Two Models With Disabilities Walked In A NYFW Runway Show & Here's Why It Matters

It's clear from the increased diversity at New York Fashion Week 2017 that some of the fashion industry's most prominent designers recognize the need for better representation. Perhaps even more important was the quiet revolution taking place during NYFW: body positive brand SmartGlamour's continued commitment to diversity not only in race and size, but in gender identity and especially in ability.

SmartGlamour founder and designer Mallorie Dunn showed her inclusive spring collection on Feb. 17 at New Perspectives Theatre, an advocacy-oriented company in Manhattan. SmartGlamour is an inclusive fashion brand that makes clothing in all sizes, from XXS-6X and beyond (Dunn also offers customization options as well). The brand always casts diverse runways, but this year, Dunn's cast included two disabled models — as well as disabled model Kody Keplinger's service dog, Corey.

In an interview with Bustle, Keplinger, who has modeled twice before for SmartGlamour, was surprised to hear she and Corey are likely the first handler-service dog team to show their stuff.

"Am I the first?" she asks, then says, "On one hand, that's so cool and I'm honored to be the first. On the other, it's kind of a bummer that it took this long. I'm so thrilled Mallorie let me model with Corey (who, let's be honest, loves the attention. My dog is not shy). But I am now wondering how long it will be before another brand takes the step to let a service dog handler walk the runway with their dog?"

Dunn also cast disabled dancer Leslie Taub, who describes herself as having "facial scarring and starfish-shaped hands," the results of 68 surgeries she had between ages two and 14, including amputation of her fingers and treatment for the burns which covered 60 percent of her body.

"Those formative experiences of pain/healing, medicalization, and constantly changing appearance shaped my understanding of my body, and the vital importance of self-construction," Taub says. "I've loved style and fashion since I was a kid, but never saw myself reflected in that world," she says. "Modeling wasn't even a possibility I allowed myself to consider. But now, younger models like Jillian Mercado and Winnie Harlow (who doesn't identify as disabled but has prominent vitiligo) are developing literal bodies of of work that speak so eloquently about the beauty of physical distinction. And with the work of groups like Inclusion In The Arts and Dance NYC's Disability Task Force, disability is slowly being more accurately represented in related fields, like media and performance arts. It's a potentially game-changing moment."

The ability to change the game is something Dunn believes in, and ultimately, it's about being the change the brand and its followers wish to see.

"My commitment to inclusive casting  — what I often refer to as accurate representation — is fully and unshakably tied to SmartGlamour itself since day one," Dunn says. "Disabled people exist in the world just like everyone else [They] need clothing like everyone else, enjoy fashion the same amount as everyone else — and deserve to be seen and represented. Kody has modeled for me three times (two runways and one accessories shoot) and this is Leslie's first time working with us. I've also had multiple other disabled models in the past."

Keplinger expressed that she wishes brands like SmartGlamour had been around when she was young. "As a plus-sized, short woman who either has to use a cane or a service dog, I always felt like fashion was not for me," she says. |I lived in jeans and T-shirts not because I wanted to, but because I didn't think there was a place for someone who looked/lived like me in the realm of the fashionable."

She continues, "As an adult, I started learning this was not true and embracing my love of fashion, but I think if I'd seen something like SmartGlamour's lookbooks as a kid, full of beautiful people of a variety of shapes and sizes, from all different backgrounds, both non-disabled and disabled alike, posing together — I think that would have had a huge impact on me and my perception of beauty and fashion."

Images: Courtesy Interviewees; Courtesy Brand