Three years before “manifesting” became the new wellness craze in late 2020, Aaron Rose Philip tweeted that when she was finally signed to a modeling agency, it was going to be “OVER for y’all.” And she was right.
Philip, a transgender Antiguan American model who was born with cerebral palsy, has published a book, been profiled by the New York Times and Vogue, was interviewed by her idol Naomi Campbell, starred in multiple high-profile fashion editorials, served as grand marshal for New York City’s 2021 Pride Parade and performed in a Miley Cyrus music video — all before she turned 21.
So, yes, it was over for all of us the second she decided to pursue the fashion industry when she was a junior in high school.
“I am someone who has lived 50 lives in 21 years,” she told In The Know. “I for sure use fashion as an outlet for my own personal happiness and self-expression.”
Philip is now managed by Community New York and Milk Management London and has modeled for almost five years now. But as she continues adding to her already impressive résumé, she is still waiting to see disability be made an equal part of the conversation surrounding the need for more diversity within fashion and beauty.
“I’ve had so many opportunities [in which] the client may revert on their decision to cast me or the job ‘just doesn’t work out’ in general due to them not being able to accommodate my disability,” Philip explained.
Physical impairment is the most common form of disability in the U.S. — affecting one out of every seven adults. Fashion is a profit-driven industry that still fails to create adaptive clothing for a significant portion of the population. In a commercial sense, ignoring disability and failing to create adaptive lines loses out on the $13 trillion in disposable income that the Global Economics of Disability annual report claims comes from shoppers with disabilities.
Even though some brands have tried to look to the future and be more inclusive, access to adaptive clothing matters too — as exemplified by the backlash Nike faced in April 2021 after increasing the price for its limited release of the first-ever hands-free sneaker.
“Disabled people quite literally consume and wear clothes like everybody does,” Philip said. “[We] deserve regularly to have space and time in fashion.”
That space and time also need to be accurate representations of disability, not performative. In a 2021 research paper on diversity in the fashion industry, author Aliyah Walker described how when disability is included in fashion shoots or runway shows, it “is overwhelmingly represented through tokenism.”
For example, in 2015, Interview magazine featured a photo shoot of Kylie Jenner, who is able-bodied, sitting in a wheelchair. In response to the backlash over the cover, Interview released a statement saying that the photos were intended to “get people thinking about image and creative expression.”
“The hard work is never over,” Philip agreed. “When other brands decide to do the important work and include disabled talent, then they too will be the future [of fashion].”
One of those brands doing the important work is Moschino, the luxury Italian fashion label, which included Philip in its spring-summer 2022 fashion show at New York Fashion Week. To date, Philip describes the experience as her favorite fashion moment.
“I cried for several days out of happiness,” she said.
Creative director Jeremy Scott had worked with Philip previously — Scott had tapped Philip to be the face of Moschino’s fall-winter 2020 campaign. But a runway debut was history-making — both professionally for Philip and because a major New York Fashion Week show had never included a model with physical disabilities before.
Only a year prior, Vogue writer Emily Farra had lamented in the days leading up to New York Fashion Week 2021 that the fashion world’s understanding of inclusivity was “limited.”
“In my almost decade of fashion week reporting, I’ve never heard a designer mention how their collection might appeal to someone with limited use of their arms or how a new trouser would work for someone with a prosthetic,” Farra wrote. “The concern is the same as the one created by decades of exclusively white, size-00 models.”
The inclusivity problem isn’t solved by having Philip walk a runway. Even in the glow of fulfilling a lifelong dream, Philip still sees how much the fashion industry needs to grow.
“[There is] so much work to do in terms of hiring disabled talent,” she said. “Whether it be being attentive to the needs of disabled talents … having disabled talent behind and in front of the camera, whether it is having a disabled producer on set, having a disabled casting director or disabled talents having a say in casting … these opportunities alone barely exist already in the industry.”
For more education on disabilities, inclusivity and the fashion industry, Aaron Rose Philip recommends following these people on social media:
Jillian Mercado: Actress, model. Philip named Mercado one of her fashion inspirations and role models.
La’shaunae Steward: Model.
Casil Mcarthur: Model.
Julian Gavino: Model.
Dominique Castelano: Model, actress.
Selyna Brillare: Model, musician.
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