Fashion 

These Disabled Models Shed Light on Their Experiences in the Fashion Industry

A conversation with Jillian Mercado, Renee Bryant-Mulcare and Sofía Jirau.

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These Disabled Models Shed Light on Their Experiences in the Fashion Industry

A conversation with Jillian Mercado, Renee Bryant-Mulcare and Sofía Jirau.

The rise of models with disabilities has revolutionized the fashion industry. Not too long ago, the aforementioned group lacked representation on the media, despite the fact that one in five people in the U.S. alone has a disability.

Able-bodied models are who have been exposed to on the runways of Fashion Week and the front covers of magazines. However, pioneers like Jillian Mercado, Mama Cax and Alexandra Kutas, among others, broke the barriers for their community, providing visibility and creating more opportunities for aspiring disabled models. In 2014, Mercado starred in her first campaign for Diesel, which landed her a deal with IMG Models the following year. The late Mama Cax made a statement at New York Fashion Week in 2018 by being featured in Chromat‘s Spring/Summer 2019 runway show that championed body diversity. Meanwhile, Kutas became the first runway model in a wheelchair at India’s runway week in 2017.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we spoke with Jillian Mercado, Renee Bryant-Mulcare and Sofía Jirau who talk about their modeling journey, as well as shed light on their past and current experiences in the business. Read on to find out more about the obstacles they’ve overcome, their thoughts on the industry’s inclusivity efforts and more.

Jillian Mercado

Currently represented by CAA Fashion, Jillian Mercado started her modeling journey back in 2014. Since then, the queer Latina talent has made a name for herself in the industry, as well as been able to provide visibility for her community. What drove her into the world of modeling at the time was the lack of diversity and inclusion that the industry had with people with disabilities. “After my first job and campaign as a model, I decided that I needed to keep this momentum going and I needed to take the responsibility to create space for my community,” Mercado tells us. Apart from working with brands like Diesel, Tommy Hilfiger and The Blonds, Mercado also started her own platform called Black Disabled Creatives with the aim to help bridge the gap for creative with disabilities.

Which models do you look up to? Did they influence your career choice in any way?

I think it would probably have to be Naomi Campbell. She’s someone who understood that being a Black woman was an extremely difficult and rare position to be in as a model, and she took all the opportunities that were given to her and made sure that her voice and self were represented. She continues to inspire me today. She influenced me by giving me the self-worth momentum and that speaking your voice can actually change minds — being unapologetically yourself is what we all need.

 

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Can you walk us through the entire process of how you succeeded in entering the modeling world?

This might just be a whole Encyclopedia of an answer, but I think that when you have the mentality that you have succeeded, you don’t push yourself to be the best. I am still learning and I am still gathering information about the modeling world on how it best fits myself and my community. Having models who have different types of disabilities is something very new and we are all excited to see what’s to come. I started out by understanding my worth and value to not only the world but also myself. Those are definitely the beginning steps of succeeding in this business. After that, just get yourself out there by any means. Social media is such a great place to start. I had Tumblr when I first started and it was a great place to meet people and to find your own community, which is very important.

What has been your favorite project so far? Why?

I have so many favorite projects, they’re all like children to me and not one is better than the other. But if I had to choose one that I was most entertained with, it probably has to be when I was on the cover of Teen Vogue. I used to collect Teen Vogue when I was younger and to have the privilege and honor to be on the cover was absolutely incredible. I also had the opportunity to shoot with my really good friend who is no longer with us, Mama Cax, and she was such a force. I still think about her all the time and I know that she’s pushing me to be the best. This was one of my favorite projects I’ve done because she was such a comfort and a beautiful soul to work with.

 

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Throughout your career, what’s one life-changing obstacle you overcame that helped you grow as an individual and as a model?

For me, it was speaking up. It is very hard to speak up in a room of people that have been accustomed to a certain kind of way. Since I am one of the first people who have a visible disability in fashion, I had to learn to not only speak up but to make them understand how things need to change for my community. If you’d like to hire me as a model, you must know that I come with important information that everyone needs to be aware of. Make sure that people understand that even though you want to be treated like your fellow models, you also come with new information that hasn’t been ever talked about or existed in the world of modeling. Speaking up allows everyone to not only gather that information but implement it in the future and make it the new norm.

“Brands need to understand that adaptable fashion needs to be implemented into their design. That for me is true representation and inclusivity.”

While some brands have been taking the initiative to be more inclusive, what more do you think can be done in terms of representation?

I believe that brands need to understand that checking a box is not the way to make your brand more inclusive. I have been noticing that people have been hiring more models who represent different communities, which is amazing and something that we should have been doing a very long time ago. I have also been noticing that that is all that they do. I only hope that the brands that do this understand that it goes beyond a campaign and beyond a social media post. They should be hiring people in their team who represent these diverse people and they should be making their website accessible to everyone. Brands need to understand that adaptable fashion needs to be implemented into their design. That for me is true representation and inclusivity.

What’s one change you hope to see this year?

People getting hired who are diverse in top-level positions. I think we definitely need a shift in who we hire and how we hire.

What do you want companies to know about people with your disability applying for jobs in the industry?

There are millions and millions of people with disabilities who have such a hard time finding a job because of their disability and honestly, I call BS on that. There is no need for someone who is extremely talented yet has a disability to not get the job. This is why I created Black Disabled Creatives because I believe that we all deserve an equal chance and opportunity to get paid just like everyone else. It’s harder when we are not giving these opportunities to people who are extremely underrepresented. So if you truly want to see a change in your brand or company, hiring people with disabilities is a great step.

What advice would you give someone with a disability who is looking to start their career?

First, I would like to thank them for allowing themselves to see a future in the world of modeling for them. I always say that that is the first step to diving into the world of modeling in the fashion industry. I would also advise them to put themselves out there as much as possible. We all have a story to tell and their story is definitely one that should be heard. Social media is such a great place to start. Create a community of friends where you all help out each other and produce content. I promise you the rest will follow. The most important advice would probably be to have fun and love every minute of it because it’s the only drive that will help you continue.

Renee Bryant-Mulcare

Renee B tapped into the modeling industry while she was still in university studying fashion branding and communication. Initially, Mulcare came across Zebedee Talent‘s work with River Island after gathering research material for a school project. “I was amazed at the work and the positive impact Zebedee was doing, especially because it was rare to see disabled models [on an ad], let alone a whole agency that is dedicated to improving representation for disabled people,” she explains. Since signing with Zebedee, the 23-year-old has been able to go beyond her comfort zone and work for some of the most notable names in fashion, including Vogue and Marie Claire.

What has been your favorite project so far? Why?

One of my favorite projects that I’ve done so far is a shoot we did for International Women’s Day a while back. I remember turning up to this shoot feeling quite nervous to bare my skin and scars. But as I saw all the other beautiful women showing up as their powerful, beautiful, authentic selves, it inspired me to do the same. It was amazing to see us all come together, helping to encourage and motivate each other. The images were captured beautifully and it is a day I’ll never forget.

Throughout your career, what’s one life-changing obstacle you overcame that helped you grow as an individual and as a model?

Before I used to rarely ever take pictures of myself in my wheelchair. I used to view myself in such a negative way for many reasons. I had very little confidence in myself and would cover up my scars. I wouldn’t like to put myself in places where I could be seen or judged. So, in many aspects, I would hide. Since my modeling journey began, this has changed massively and I now find it so powerful to show up as all I am, I view myself in a much more positive light. I still have times when I struggle, but I always aim to return back to a positive place. I try to remind myself of just how hard I’ve worked to be where I am now and how far I’ve come.

 

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Do you still face other hindrances in your career? If so, how have you been able to cope with it?

I struggle with my mental or physical health, which presents itself in different ways at different times. As a result, I may not be able to show up as I’d like to on some days, but I try to be patient with myself and listen to what I may need at times like that. The agency is really good at supporting this as well, so I try my best to communicate this. When I do shoots in times of experiencing difficulties or needing to communicate my needs, the people I’ve worked with have thankfully been really good in accommodating and acting accordingly, which has helped me feel more confident in saying when I’m not feeling so good, or in need of some support. I used to have a fear of people judging or not understanding me, or feeling like I’m too much, but that hasn’t been the case.

“To wish to be anyone else would be a waste of the person that you are uniquely made to be. Own and embrace everything that makes you, you.”

What do you want companies to know about people with your disability applying for jobs in the industry?

My advice for companies is for them to be as inclusive and diverse as they can be — to be accommodating, accepting, embracing and accessible.

What advice would you give someone with a disability who is looking to start their career?

Don’t be afraid to show up as your true, authentic self. If you are, feel the fear and do it anyway. To wish to be anyone else would be a waste of the person that you are uniquely made to be. Own and embrace everything that makes you, you. You don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be yourself.

Sofía Jirau

Puerto Rican model Sofía Jirau made waves earlier this year by becoming the first model with Down syndrome to work with Victoria’s Secret. “[It's] a dream come true and the result of a lot of discipline and perseverance,” she comments on her latest achievement. Of course, success does not happen overnight. Since 2019, Jirau has been honing her craft and gaining as much experience as she could to get to where she is today. “I don’t think there was something that inspired me to be a model. I believe it’s part of who I am,” she expresses. Prior to VS, Jirau has collaborated with different Puerto Rican designers, modeled at New York Fashion Week and more.

What has been your favorite project so far? Why?

My favorite modeling-related project has been modeling for Victoria’s Secret because I knew I was making history as the first model with Down syndrome for the company. Also, I loved that the models for the “Love Cloud” collection were different and without limits. On the other hand, my favorite project outside of modeling is my “Sin Límites” campaign that I launched in October 2021 to raise awareness about Down syndrome, to make the challenges my community faces visible and to show that there are no limits.

Throughout your career, what’s one life-changing obstacle you overcame that helped you grow as an individual and as a model?

I believe the main challenge I have faced was finding a job after I graduated from high school. I couldn’t find a job that would accept me as I am and that sees no limits in me. Thankfully, INprende gave me a job opportunity. I love working there. They have also supported me in accomplishing all my dreams. This experience taught me not to give up and to always show people that there are no limits. I apply this lesson to my modeling career and everything.

 

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A post shared by Sofía Jirau (@sofiajirau)

While some brands have been taking the initiative to be more inclusive, what more do you think can be done in terms of representation?

I think there is a need for representation from within. I dream that there will be more and more employees in different companies with Down syndrome and other conditions. We too can work and achieve our dreams. I would like to tell the whole world to give us a chance to demonstrate our potential and abilities.

What do you want companies to know about people with your disability applying for jobs in the industry?

I want them to know that we are capable to perform successfully in a work environment, that we can achieve tasks effectively, and have commitment and loyalty to our work.

What advice would you give someone with a disability who is looking to start their career?

I would tell them to be confident in their abilities and talent, that they can achieve anything they set their mind to, and to never forget that there are no limits.

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