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Chelsea is a wheelchair user and is wearing black underway on the runway

'Taking up space' at NZ Fashion Week

The strong cast of disabled models at this year's New Zealand Fashion Week is a sign of how far we've come in the quest for better disability representation in Aotearoa.

  • 'Taking up space' at NZ Fashion Week
    Olivia Shivas
  • “Nerves” is the first word that comes to mind for Chelsea Pita (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Rangitihi) an hour after she’s just hit the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week: Kahuria. 

    For the first-time fashion week model, it was even more intimidating in front of a full audience for the Jockey show - famously known for featuring athletes in their undies. “But it was reassuring to know others were doing it for the first time too. I found out some of the models were new as well so they felt like I felt, and we kinda did it together,” she says. 

    Being cast in five different shows was not something she expected, but the extra accommodations that have been made helped make the process much more smooth. Backstage, the disabled models got their own separate dressing area and more space to make room for their own chairs. They also got their hair and make-up done first to help calm the nerves prior to the big moment.

    When Pita first started using a wheelchair, it was “isolating because I was new to the community”. But finding community with other disabled people helped her embrace it. “Doing [fashion week] to represent our communities - not just the disability community but the Māori community as well - has been lovely”. 

Models Chelsea Pita and Rebecca McDonald, both female-presenting wheelchair users, model underwear as part of the Jockey show at NZ Fashion Week 2023. They are part of a diverse group of models, dressed in underwear, on the runway.

  • Chelsea is in her Jockey underwear and smiling. She is surrounded by other models on the runway.
  • It was at fashion week in 2019 when disabled models were first cast from disability-led communications agency All is for All. 

    Director Grace Stratton said it was a significant moment for disability representation in fashion. “For a long time, you sort of just accept not really seeing certain kinds of people in certain places, right? You just sort of accept it because it's just always been that way".

    When Stratton approached fashion week to have disabled models at the casting, “we only got positive feedback to that,” she says. “There was nothing really precluding us from doing it, it was more the thought that you couldn’t do it that was precluding it.”

    So when the moment came to see disabled models at that first casting, there were tears of joy. “The reason I was so emotional on that particular day is just because of what it represented for a generation of people that have never seen themselves before… It means a lot more than someone walking the runway for five minutes.”

  • “For a long time, you sort of just accept not really seeing certain kinds of people in certain places, right? You just sort of accept it because it's just always been that way"

    All is for All Director, Grace Stratton

  • But there’s still work to be done for full and authentic disability representation in the fashion world. “There are a core group of people who understand the importance of disability inclusion and that’s wonderful. But I wouldn’t say yet there’s a full embrace from every person… there’s always room to improve.” 

    Stratton is very aware that each disabled person’s life experience is deeply informed by the context they live in. “I'm really cognisant that there's probably lots of disabled people out there that are looking at people in fashion week and thinking, why are we there when there's so many disabled people just trying to pay their rent or just trying to get by.

    But she says what inclusion at fashion week represents is “making sure that people in positions of power see us and they see us taking up space … I'm not really expecting everybody to be there, but what I do firmly think is that disabled people have a right to be wherever they want to be.”

    * The writer is a 2023 New Zealand Week Ambassador, but was under no obligation to write this piece.