For me, attending New York Fashion Week is a lifelong dream realized: being immersed in stunning artistry, sitting in the same rooms as A-Listers and seeing icons at every turn… It’s an extremely privileged experience, and it’s one I’m so grateful to be a part of.
But as luxurious and thrilling as the runways and presentations can be, there’s one thing I couldn’t help but notice throughout the week: all the stairs.
As someone who deals with chronic pain, climbing up several flights of stairs at a time can be, quite frankly, debilitating. Oftentimes, I wouldn’t know that I would need to climb a staircase (or multiple) until I was at the venue; and it wasn’t uncommon to be told there wasn’t an elevator for myself and other guests with disabilities — visible or not — to use.
My experience is not unique: Accessibility has been a longstanding issue within fashion. A lot of brands don’t consider those with disabilities in general when it comes to their product offerings, which leaves a lot of people unable to purchase their clothing. Organizations like Runway of Dreams (which stages inclusive design runways and partners with major brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Target) and Open Style Lab (which fosters collaboration between designers, engineers and therapists to create accessible fashion solutions) have made great strides. So have individuals like Sinéad Burke, Jillian Mercado and more, who have spoken about their experiences and advocated for a more accessible industry. But the logistical oversights of fashion week expose all the work that still needs to be done.
Since the major fashion weeks take place in large cities, it’s not uncommon for events to be held in pre-war buildings with no elevators or wheelchair ramps. It’s seemingly commonplace for physical accessibility to be overlooked during the event-planning process, leaving disabled attendees disregarded.
When it comes to complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA), the waters are murky for fashion week, particularly in New York City. Even though private events — like most of New York Fashion Week’s are — are legally bound to follow the ADA, it isn’t often enforced. A guest facing accessibility issues at an event, however, can file a complaint with the Department of Justice to start an investigation.
“A lot of the work would be on the organizers and PR folks to visit the buildings they’re interested in holding the event at, and if one can, to try and have someone with a disability during the site visit to consider the accessibility,” Phillip Bratta, a public affairs specialist at the Access Board, tells Fashionista. “We hear a lot of, ‘It’s going to cost more money’ or, ‘It’s going to make things more complicated.’ The response is that you will actually get more business and provide more interest and engagement by making it more accessible, because you’re then opening up that space for more people.”