London (AFP): Smashing the fashion world's rigid conventions, UK modelling agency Zebedee has been filling catwalks with a diverse array of models for seven years.

On the catwalks at London Fashion Week, which started on Friday, it is now common to see models from all ethnic backgrounds, with minorities now making up around half of shows, compared to 14 percent just 10 years ago, according to a report published in January.

Zebedee also works to find greater exposure for models with visible disabilities or who are transgender.

"It's still incredibly rare to see anybody with a disability feature. London, Paris, Milan, New York, it's still very, very rare," Zebedee's co-founder Laura Winson told AFP.

A former social worker who often worked with disabled people, Winson founded the agency in 2017 with her sister-in-law Zoe Proctor, a former model.

"We launched it because we felt that there was a lack of representation and fashion and media," she explained.

Zebedee works like any other agency, except that all of its models have a "visible difference".

Some are in wheelchairs, have atrophy of limbs or albinism, while others have Down syndrome.

Around 15 percent of the world's population, or one billion people, live with some form of disability, according to UN figures.

"Yet figures show that maybe around one percent of people featured in advertising have a disability", with catwalk representation even worse, pointed out Winson.

 

Relentless campaign

Two Zebedee models will tread the catwalk at London Fashion Week: Vic, a young woman in a wheelchair who will show for Gasanova, and Oscar, a transgender model with autism, who will display for Helen Kirkum.

It is reward for Winson's years of relentless campaigning to convince designers and brands of the advantages of employing a diverse roster of models.

"The first thing is, of course, it's morally the right thing to do, everybody should be awarded the same equality of opportunity," she explained.

"Secondly, you can develop some amazing creative campaigns. We know that our models can do the job."

"And then the third reason, and which is what interests most customers, is the financial aspect," because people with disabilities represent an important market, she added.

For Zebedee, success really began in 2020 when Gucci chose one of their models, Ellie Goldstein, who has Down syndrome.

Goldstein has since graced the cover of British Vogue, and Zebedee has also gone from strength to strength, representing more than a thousand models in Europe, the United States and Australia.

 

'Genuine change happening'

Junior B, a Briton who uses the non-binary pronouns they/them, started working with the agency in 2020. Suffering from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Junior B often uses a wheelchair.

"Before modelling, I didn't think any job was possible for anyone in my position," Junior B told AFP.

"I think there is definitely some genuine change happening," particularly among small businesses "or those where younger people are in charge," added the model.

"Some brands have really got the message".

Despite the wins, Winson complained that progress is still too slow.

"Everybody knows who we are, everybody knows we exist. They can book disabled models if they want to... but for some reason, it's not happening," she complained.

"So I am getting to the point where somehow brands need to be held to account," she added.

Caroline Rush, director of London Fashion Week organiser the British Fashion Council, said that "in terms of size inclusivity, we've been the number one fashion capital for a few seasons."

"The catwalks in London feel, I think, very different to quite a few of the other fashion capitals. They feel that they are a real reflection of the society in London," she added.

In London, a city known for its innovative young talent, designers like Sinead O'Dwyer are known for holding inclusive shows.

However, Rush acknowledged that "there's still quite a lot of work to do behind the scenes".