Disabled talent: it’s in Vogue and on the Kidz Board as Penelope wins mentorship

Vogue celebrates “dynamic, daring & disabled” stars in one of the highest profile positive representations of disability yet

Iconic fashion magazine Vogue has set a new landmark in the representation of disability, and they’ve done it as only they know how – in style. The May edition features five stunning disabled cover stars and is described by editor-in-chief Edward Enninful as “one of the proudest moments of my career”.

Titled Reframing Fashion, the issue is a celebration of influential disabled people. Gracing the five covers are Selma Blair, Ellie Goldstein, Justina Miles, Aaron Rose Philip and Sinéad Burke. Inside the issue are a total of 19 other disabled people from fashion, sports and the arts. In another first, the magazine will be available in Braille, digital Braille and an audio-described version.

“It’s a dream come true,” says cover star Aaron Rose Philip, an Antiguan American who in 2018 became the first black, transgender, and physically disabled model to be represented by a major modelling agency. In 2021 at Moschino’s spring/summer show, she became the first model using a wheelchair to take to the catwalk for a major luxury fashion brand. Aaron Rose’s Vogue cover shoot (below) shows her draped in a long black silk-devoré dress in her powered wheelchair, which is prominently included in the picture. There’s no cropping out the wheels in this shot, which routinely happens when wheelchair users are photographed in the media.

Aaron Rose is in no doubt about how important British Vogue’s innovative stance is. She says:

It’s imperative for the fashion industry to understand that Disabled people matter and contribute to fashion.

Ellie Goldstein, a British model with Down syndrome who has worked with brands including Nike, Adidas and Gucci, agrees. “My goal was always to be on the cover of Vogue,” she says. “The world needs to see more models with Down syndrome.

We need to be seen and represented. We are the same as everyone else. 

The magazine’s other cover stars are (shown below, from first to last) actress Selma Blair, who has multiple sclerosis; Justina Miles, who went viral with her explosive signing interpretation of Rihanna’s Super Bowl performance and consulting editor Sinéad Burke, the head of the accessibility consultancy Tilting the Lens; who worked with British Vogue to put inclusivity at the heart of how the issue was produced. For her second Vogue cover appearance, she ensured that the photo shoots took place in fully accessible studios and were shot by disabled photographers.

Editor Enninful, who revealed last year that he had visual and hearing impairments and a blood disorder, told the BBC he had “learned so much” from producing the issue. “My tenure here at Vogue has always been about inclusivity and diversity, and people forget how hard it is for the disabled community,” he says.

The announcement of Vogue’s celebration of disabled talent in its May issue coincided with exciting news from the prestigious fashion publication for Kidz Board chair Penelope Harrison. It was announced that she was one of two runners-up in the Vogue Business Talent Competition. Now in its third year, the competition aims to champion new voices in fashion and beauty business journalism. Penny (below, at the top of the image) wrote a 1,000-word article and two story pitches to win her prize – a 6-month mentorship with Vogue.

“As somebody who was told pursuing a career in fashion was futile, the opportunity to develop my skill set thanks to recognition by an institution like Vogue Business is an incredible feat for me,” she said to Vogue.

I grew up admiring the Vogue brand, and I’m deeply grateful to be able to learn from it in such an intimate way. 

We asked award-winning Penelope for her thoughts on her mentoring brand’s historic issue for disabled representation. She told us that the fashion industry’s indifference to disabled people when she was growing up in the early 2000s impacted her self-image.

“I knew I existed, obviously, but it felt like the rest of the world didn’t. Nobody cared that I needed clothes that fit,” she says. At times, this could seem hostile. “Many companies actively went out of their way to exclude disabled people. A lot of the big players in the fashion industry and on the high street pretended I wasn’t alive.”

Working with Vogue as they go further than ever to celebrate disabled people must feel great, then?

“To have this type of recognition come from Vogue is incredibly healing for me because I always knew that I liked fashion. I always knew that it was one of my biggest passions in life. It’s incredibly validating.

“I have been an admirer of the Vogue brand for so long. I am really stoked that it has paid off,” she says.

It’s been a great couple of days for disabled talent, thanks to Vogue with Penny’s win and the Reframing Fashion issue of the magazine. We’ll keep you up to date on Penelope’s progress. To find out more about this issue of Vogue, go to www.vogue.co.uk/article/vogue-disability-portfolio-2023.

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