If you were to ask me how it felt being the first blind model to be on New Zealand Fashion Week runway using a cane, that’s the word I’d choose.
Surreal not just for the experience - I think anyone’s first runway show would be a pretty surreal experience. No, surreal in the power, the platform, the sense of being seen in a way I’ve never experienced before.
I want to share that experience with you here. The highs, the anxieties, and the profound sense of the magnitude and importance of not just what I’m doing, but why I’m doing it.
When you’re told you don’t belong somewhere, told you don’t deserve to be a part of something, it’s easy to start believing that.
That’s exactly what the lacklustre representation of disabled people in our media is telling us. “You’re not a part of this”. Perhaps nowhere more than the world of fashion, infamous for its superficiality and elitism.
Beauty is diverse, and I’m so proud to be working with an organisation like All is for All, who are shaking and awakening the fashion and beauty industry to this simple yet profound realisation.
I’m reading a book at the moment - Blindingly Obvious, the recently-released biography by my friend Minnie Baragwanath. This is related to fashion week, I promise.
In her book, Minnie describes how her life, and her identity, changed after her diagnosis of Stargardt’s disease and gradual loss of her vision over her teenage years. She struggled at University, in a lot of ways I could relate to. She wanted to blend in, she didn’t want to appear to be blind.
Because blind people, according to large pockets of our society, don’t belong in university.
“I hid my blindness for my first couple of years at university too. It was almost as if I were closeted - and I don’t think anyone was fooled.”
Our irrational desire to hide our blindness was symptomatic of that thinking, that perception of disability not belonging; of the othering that is still the status quo in much of the world.
When Minnie sought counselling about her difficulty accessing university through the then-Blind Foundation, she was advised that perhaps she just “wasn’t very smart.”
I am happy to report that my university experience was a lot less invalidating, but of course we still have a lot of work to do. Work to shift the thinking of people like Minnie’s counsellor (granted, that was like three decades ago).
I was thrilled to find out I’d been cast by Susanna Tasi for NZFW. And, that NZFW was happening this year, after a couple of covid cancellations. I was delighted because, oh my god, I’m walking in a runway show, how cool! I was equally delighted, though, because I realised that the chance to walk with my cane in New Zealand’s biggest fashion event of the year was the perfect opportunity to do some of that aforementioned work.
Just as there’s no reason blindness should prevent you from accessing tertiary education.
“There’s no reason any disability should preclude your access to the world of fashion.And what better place to make that statement than on the runway at fashion week?”
Fitting One: Sunday
I arrived by myself, not really knowing what to expect. A woman spotted me near the entrance - “Ari?” She asked. “I’m Michelle.”
Michelle led me down an unfamiliar hall in the Fickling Convention Centre. We arrived in a roomful of models, with racks full of clothes. A warm voice, who I would later learn belonged to Susana, was enthusiastically discussing nude stilettos.
We did a quick round of intros, where I learned that most of the team had come up from Gisborne, and one of the models as far as Geraldine. It was a nice vibe, really wholesome. I hadn’t known what to expect so I was grateful for how chill it seemed.
Some of the models were already in their outfits. I was introduced to mine, and after getting changed it was time to rehearse the walk. I was very conscious that this room wasn’t where the show would be, and I felt pretty anxious to get a walk through the actual runway, in the Viaduct Events Centre on Auckland’s waterfront. It was, however, great to get the emotion and philosophy behind the show, and to practise embodying that and getting feedback on our walks.
I couldn’t see much of the detailing, but the show’s blue and green hues had a Pasifika feel for sure.. The music was a dub-adjacent genre, with one of the tracks incorporating war horns and what might have been a didgeridoo. There was a nautical energy to the collection too, something regally Viking-esque in the way we were asked to carry ourselves down the runway. I have a bit of Viking heritage, so I really connected to that.
Susana said her brand represented all people. It wasn't just pasifika, it wasn't just skinny girls and twinks. The vibe of how Susanna described the show was majestic, beautiful, powerful. Not cold but graceful. I understood it as transcendent; accepting what is without judgement and drawing power from it - applicable in contexts of disability, race, gender, sexuality, and practically any aspect of humanity we seem to find flaws in or fight with one another about. That diversity of identity was reflected in Susanna’s models - including yours truely.
So why am I doing this? How on earth did I end up pacing up and down a roomful of beautiful people in Mt Albert on a Sunday afternoon?
When I became blind I was 19. I was never going to just throw in the towel and give up, but I really believed I had become lesser, that I needed to "fix" my blindness. It was meeting blind people doing amazing things, who I am lucky to call friends today, that inspired my realisation that "oh, I can still do all the things I want to". The old adage; often the biggest thing stopping us is ourselves - and, in this case, our self-perception.
I guess, I want to be that, for other people. For the disabled kids leafing through Vogue magazine, fantasising about a world that feels forbidden to them. Where people like them can’t be. Or so they - we - are told.
Aside from a car literally backing into me while I was waiting for a taxi home, it was all pretty smooth. Watch where you’re reversing, please.
More importantly (arguably), tomorrow, we walk through the show at the venue.
Fitting two: Monday
I’m bringing a support person to this one, yay! I'm bussing to town, meeting him and then heading down to the viaduct events centre for a walk through of the actual space and to finalise a few options.
That is, I was, but in true Auckland style I arrive at my usual bus stop to discover it is barricaded in an impenetrable fortress of cones. No notification on the net - Google nor AT. Nor any people doing any work I could ask whether an alternative stop had been set up. Just cones. Lots and lots and lots of cones.
So in a taxi I hop, slightly worried about time but thankfully there isn't much of a delay today. I meet my friend and we head to the venue.
We got an email from AIFA this morning with all the shows for all our models. AIFA first approached, and got disabled talent cast in, NZFW in 2019. I was cast for fashion week in 2021, but unfortunately it was cancelled because of Omicron, then 2022 didn’t happen either. Nevertheless, it was great to see the same names casting disabled talent again this year.
Having a walk through on the stage - which thankfully was not raised above the ground - did a lot to put my mind at ease. There was an open window on one side of the runway, the glare from which I had my reservations about. The one eye I have some vision in, the left, is full of scar tissue which catches the light and makes glarey situations very difficult to navigate. Accompanied by quite literally eye-watering pain. Luckily, though, we weren’t going to be in direct sunlight, so I was confident I’d be able to manage the glare. At least, that’s what I told myself.
There was just the matter of getting off the runway gracefully. With the glare in my face as I walked back down the runway to the backstage area, the exit was virtually invisible. It hid behind an eye-watering and impenetrable fog of glare, nestled in a backdrop of labyrinthine black curtains. High glare and low contrast. Not the iconic duo I’m looking for. I’d have to go full blind mode for this one.
Bringing my awareness to my cane, I close my eyes. There are grooves I can feel in the stage. Tiles. Excellent. The stage is in the shape of a capital “T”, with the runway being the long middle part, the entrance to the stage at the right hand side of the horizontal line across the top, and the exit on the left hand side of the line. The line which, in this case, is rather more narrow than I’d like it to be. The stage is raised from the ground by a couple of centimetres. Also great - I can use the edge to know where to turn towards the stage exit door.
I know I have to practice this. I have to practice being graceful. Not hunching over to check where I’m going. Not getting trapped in a sea of curtains at the end. Not showing anything on my face. This will take a while to master.
After 10 years of blindness, I still don’t know if I’m all that great at honing into the tactile information of the space around me. I use tactics like this, and acoustic information, to navigate every day, though, so I thought I’d explain it a little to give the visual amongst you a little glimpse into the blind sensory world. Petition for cane tracks on runways!
After a lot of solo practice, a few run-throughs, lots of of chatting to the other models, and a final check on the shoes and belt, I was about as ready as I’d ever be. We had a break Tuesday, and then showtime was Wednesday. Gulp.
Show day: Wednesday
It’s eeeaaaarrrrlllllyyyyyyyy….. I am definitely not a morning person.
I get a lift to the venue this morning. It’s fairly uneventful, besides the people waving banners in support of the National party downtown. Even more nauseating given the recent release of their tax policy reforms. But this morning I’ve got more salient things on my mind. I bump into Susana and a few of the models outside. There’s a nervous chatter to everyone, including myself. We head into the backstage entrance, and the nervous chatter is amplified to a boom. We’re in a dark, cavernous atrium, permeated by blue lights to keep people awake (theoretically). A very friendly doorman sorts our backstage lanyard passes out, amid the chaos, and on we traipse into the fray. After waiting for one elevator load of people, we head up to level 3 on the next one, to hair and makeup (check out my Insta highlight for some vids) I don't think I'll ever forget her stellar gem of runway wisdom -"look as though I've just slapped you in the face".
It’s difficult to recount what happened here; it was all such a blur. A couple of people did my hair (sorry for stealing your bobby pin Pip), and I got my face done, which took me right back to my teenage years as a makeup artist. We got changed, lined up, and did a couple of final practice run-throughs, this time in order (which was changed at the last minute, naturally).
I seemed to be getting the walk down okay. The exit was what I was most worried about.
I was nervous at this point. Everybody seemed to be. There were a few first-time runway models here, and even more who hadn’t done NZFW before. It all happened so quickly, though, we didn’t really have time to second guess ourselves.
Before the show, as our hearts were unanimously pounding while we stood in line, a valiantly gay head stylist emerged out of nowhere, with a last-minute dousing of shine spray for everyone’s hair. Not only was he hilarious, he was a shock that dissipated the nerves that I had been building up. I have no clue whether that hairdresser will ever know how grateful I am to him for that.
The show starts. I’m in line, practicing mindfulness. Poise. Posture. The line moves forward. Momefulness. Poise. Posture. How much room did I have between turning off the runway and slipping through the stage exit door again? Monefulness. Poise. Posture. The line moves forward.
I’m up next. An eternity passes. Eventually Michelle squeezes my arm as she gazes at the monitor sending a live feed of the runway.
The sun is out. Glare. Oh god. Mindfulness. Resting bitch face. Give nothing away. Slay. My head empties of thoughts as I step on to the runway, The world around me dissolves as I simply focus on walking in a straight line. I don’t even hear the music. Or someone apparently sobbing. Or the applause.
Heading back from the end. The hard part. I’m glad we got those practices in - it worked really hard to spatially memorise the exit from the runway and it paid off. I slid backstage pretty much perfectly. I’d like to hope that wasn’t a fluke.
There was barely time for a gasp of relief before being shepherded - with some very positive words of reassurance from the backstage team - back in line for the final parade of all the models, followed by Susanna and her sister Michelle.
After the show, the getting changed, the thank yous and the goodbyes, I headed downstairs. I don’t think it was the espresso martini that zonked me for the rest of the day. It was as though my adrenal glands had imploded after pumping me with so much adrenaline that morning.
It was over the coming days, as I saw the photos and videos of the runway, that I realised. There were a whole lot of people in that room. And a good proportion of them were filming or photographing my walk. With my cane. Videos and photos of the show were popping up all over my socials. I felt - and still feel - really seen. Not as myself; but as the people, the cane users, that I represented on that runway.
I hope to walk more runways in the future. I hope as a disabled community we can colonise the runway. In this age of preaching diversity, I hope 1 in 4 models are disabled, just as 1 in 4 people are. And I hope those models don’t feel the need to hide their disability for fear of judgement and discrimination.
We are here. And we aren’t going anywhere.