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Fashion Dis host Ardra Shephard on creating a makeover series that celebrates the disability community

“Fashion and beauty should be for everybody and every body.”

That’s the tagline and premise of Fashion Dis, a new makeover series airing Wednesdays on AMI-tv. Hosted by Toronto-based blogger and multiple sclerosis advocate Ardra Shephard, the ground-breaking show solves style challenges faced by disabled people—who have often been ignored by the fashion and beauty industries—and helps them achieve the look they’ve always wanted. 

Each transformation is guided by the show’s innovative team of glam experts and culminates in an empowering, high-fashion photoshoot that lets the participants strut their stuff. 

“The idea to include a photoshoot element was so important to me because I wanted the images to live beyond the show,” says Shephard, who came up with the idea for the series based on the fashion frustrations she faced after being diagnosed with MS. “I wanted the participants to be able to share them on social media, knowing how important that representation is.”

Last week’s premiere featured Melissa, a short-statured woman who was tired of being called “cute” and wanted to embrace her sexy side. Her makeover included a change from blonde to fiery red hair, a form-fitting black dress, and dramatic high heels—something she’d previously been unable to find in her size. This week, viewers will meet Claire, a para-athlete who feels trapped in her baggy clothing and longs for a look that reflects who she really is. 

We spoke with Ardra Shephard about creating Fashion Dis and why she feels the series is so important for the disabled community. 

Where did the concept for Fashion Dis come from?
Ardra Shephard: The concept came completely from my own experience. I was not born with a disability. I developed multiple sclerosis in my early 20s, and multiple sclerosis is a progressive illness, so I acquired varying degrees of disability over the years. For many years, my symptoms were invisible, but when they started to become noticeable in my 30s, I started to need a cane and then a walker, which we now call a rollator. I was really traumatized by that, partly because of what was happening to my body but also what really surprised me was the assault I felt on my sense of self and my identity, how I felt like these devices made me stand out in a bad way, made me look less attractive. I scoured the Internet for images of people that looked cool using mobilities, I looked for mobility aids that looked cool, and it took a long, long time to find those. So I was hiding my mobilities in photos, and I really felt diminished by these things that are actually tools that help us get through our day. A lot of these things are stigmatized so much. Phrases like ‘end up in a wheelchair’ are very common in the MS community. No one talks about being afraid to lose the ability to walk, we phrase it as ‘I don’t want to end up in a wheelchair.’ So we stigmatize the very thing that actually helps us live and keep moving. 

It was really just going through that struggle and then finally just realizing that I couldn’t let that narrative continue to play in my head. I felt like if there aren’t images of people who look like me—who are young and care about style and fashion and about living life—then I’m gonna put them out there. So I hired a photographer who had shot for Vogue, I hired a stylist, and I hired a makeup artist, and I did a photoshoot and I included my mobilities in them, and then I posted them on social media—and this was probably two years before [actor and fellow MS advocate] Selma Blair’s red carpet cane reveal—and [the photos] really resonated. Then I was commissioned to write an article for xoJane, which is now InStyle, to talk about this very thing. So I recruited two girlfriends that also have MS and did the same thing for them: I paid for them to have their makeup done, I styled them and did a photo shoot. And the feelings they got from sharing those pictures were so powerful that I felt like things needed to change. 

In 2017, when I was first started going down this road, there were zero— I’m talking zero—images of stylish, disabled people available on the Internet, and in such a short time, there are now tens of thousands. I, of course, don’t take credit for everything that’s happening in this movement, but I’m very proud to be a leader in that space and to be a part of it. Because what I was looking for [back then] is still not available in mainstream media, but it’s certainly on social media. 

I love that each episode centres around a photoshoot and creating empowering images of each participant instead of delving into their backstory or dwelling on their disability. It’s fun and uplifting.  
AS: Every detail of this show was very intentional. We have seen disability stories in media before, but they are almost always with a sad soundtrack and a hospital-themed origin story. And in my own experience, strangers regularly feel entitled to ask me, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ or ‘What happened to you?’ That’s not an acceptable icebreaker, and when it happens to you all the time, you can start to feel like disability is the only identity that you’re entitled to. Somehow we think that if somebody is visibly disabled that they owe us an explanation, and yet for somebody who doesn’t have an apparent disability, we would never think to ask a random stranger such personal questions. It’s kind of staggering to me. It’s really nobody’s business what anybody’s health situation is. All we needed to know was, what’s the fashion obstacle and how can we address that? [One of our producers] put it perfectly when she said, ‘If I’m struggling to find clothes because I’m overweight, you don’t need to know why I gained weight to know that I have a struggle finding clothes that fit.’

Was it easy to find participants for the show?
AS: Yes. We put out a casting call and we had an overwhelming response, which was really exciting because I feel like people just got what we were trying to do from the start. And, also, it really showed that there is an appetite for this kind of content and this kind of representation. There were so many people just putting their hands up and saying, ‘Yes, please. I want to see myself here.’ So the real challenge was, with only six episodes, how do we show enough diversity? I mean, there are a million ways to be disabled and there are a million ways to be human, so how do we show as much of that as possible? And when you’re the only one doing something, there’s an added pressure to make sure everybody feels seen and I think we did a good job, but we definitely need more seasons to explore that more. And in the bigger picture, we just need more content like this across the board. 

How did you go about assembling the members of the makeover team? What were you looking for?
AS: We were looking for [experts with] experience with disability, a sensitivity and an understanding, and also a willingness and an open openness to learn. Some of our cast are disabled and some are not, but everybody involved is very open and receptive to learning and doing the best job possible at doing right by the disability community.

One of the reasons the show’s participants face style challenges is the lack of adaptive clothing and beauty options on the mainstream market. How did you go about sourcing some of the clothing items and products used in the show? Was it a struggle or are things starting to improve?
AS: It’s definitely both. Our wardrobe specialist, Izzy Camilleri, is an A-list designer who has been working in the adaptive clothing world for years now and at some sacrifice to her because she was designing for A-list celebrities. I think it’s fair to say—she talks about this in her TED Talk—that some of her business dropped off when she switched to doing adapted fashion, but it’s something she’s very passionate about. She’s the first, I think, in Canada and a real trailblazer. So it was really fantastic for us to have her; she’s such an authority figure in this space. But there are other companies and businesses and designers that are starting to work in this space. Even in the last two years, the options have really exploded. So a lot of it for me was just being in the community and knowing some of the players already and being able to facilitate those connections as we went into the show. And then the rest was doing our homework and finding those businesses that are catering to this community and then doing it in a stylish way. For us, everything had to be functional, but it also had to look good.

The first episode featured Melissa, and, this week, we meet Claire. Who else is going to get a makeover this season?
AS: We also have a writer-broadcaster, and she came to us with a prosthetic leg that has a floral fabric covering that was just so beautiful, and the rest of her look didn’t look as cool as her prosthesis. For us, that was about bringing the rest of her look up to match her prosthetic leg. And Tai was really cool, a 17-year-old kid who’s just a product of this generation that is already embracing diversity and leaning into what’s different. He was so confident and already stylish and interested in fashion and potentially modelling, but he’s got calluses on his hands from wheeling his chair and wanted to find good-looking gloves and also pants that are appropriate for seated body types. The rise needs to be different, and you need a seam in the back that isn’t irritating when you’re sitting all day. And then there’s Marya, a powerchair user who also has dexterity issues. So [we needed to find] tools to help her apply her own makeup, because she loves makeup but doesn’t want her mom to have to do it for her all the time. Giving her a little bit of independence for that is really exciting.

What do you hope viewers will get out of Fashion Dis?
AS: I think there will be two categories of viewers. For the disability community, I want that audience to feel elevated and celebrated and cool and beautiful. I also want them to be aware of the kinds of brands and innovations that are being designed specifically with them in mind. For the rest of the world, I think it’s an opportunity to get to know some people with disabilities. Globally, I think we don’t do well by disabled people. So many of our spaces are so inaccessible and there are so many systemic problems. I mean, nobody wants to make a show that’s calling out all the shitty ways we treat people with a disability, but I think when you get to know people with disabilities and you start to care about them, that’s when you want to do better by them. I think this show is an invitation to get to know some of the cool kids with disabilities and care about them. It’s about normalizing and introducing and thinking about disability in a different way.

Fashion Dis airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on AMI-tv. Episodes can also be streamed on AMI.ca and the AMI-tv app.

Images courtesy of Accessible Media Inc.

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