Models often have several people touching them at once: hairstylists pull at their locks, makeup artists prod their faces, stylists accidentally pinch them while adjusting clothes. Add flashing lights, people speaking over music and itchy labels, and the result is sensory overload that sometimes leaves model Nina Marker unable to think or breathe.
Marker has Asperger’s syndrome and autism. Like 20 per cent of people working in creative industries, she is neurodivergent, managing often invisible conditions that shape how she engages with the world. The term neurodivergent (as opposed to neurotypical) covers a range of natural neurological variations, from autism and ADHD to Tourette’s. It applies to some of fashion’s most prolific figures: designers Tommy Hilfiger and Paul Smith are both dyslexic, and the model Cara Delevingne is dyspraxic. “Growing up with dyslexia, I always understood the unique challenges and frustrations that could be faced in daily life,” says Hilfiger.
Several studies have extolled the potential benefits of neurodivergence for creativity and innovation. In a 2009 report, Cass Business School professor Julie Logan found that 35 per cent of US entrepreneurs identified as dyslexic. Another survey, in the UK, suggested that 40 per cent of the country’s self-made millionaires were dyslexic.
Copenhagen-based Marker works with her agents at The Society and Elite to plan recuperation breaks between jobs, practice yoga to increase her ability to cope, and avoid triggers such as long-haul flights with lots of layovers or unknown places. Many neurodivergent people have to work without these considerations, facing discrimination in the workplace through exclusive unsympathetic management and ignorant colleagues. In a 2018 survey of 600 neurodivergent people in the UK by the Westminster AchieveAbility Commission, 52 per cent said they had faced discrimination during recruitment processes. Another report found that 84 per cent of neurodivergent employees were constantly stressed, compared to 49 per cent of their neurotypical peers.
Unless businesses make the adjustments neurodivergent staff need to thrive, they risk losing employees with untapped potential, says Nadya Powell, co-founder of inclusive workplace consultancy Utopia. “A lot of people don’t get diagnosed until very late, by which point they might have complex mental health challenges from struggling with a condition without support. Some people don’t disclose their diagnosis (this is called ‘covering’) so they don’t get professional support, and those that do disclose often don’t get adequate support,” she explains.
If you don’t accommodate neurodiversity, you won’t get the best out of people or retain them.
Neurodivergent people have plenty to offer. Norwegian photographer Nora Nord has ADHD, which manifests in her excellent problem-solving skills and her ability to forge connections with her subjects. Indian designer Rohan Chhabra, who works for Ralph Lauren, says his dyslexia allows him to visualise complex garment constructions. “This is not a minority,” continues Powell. “We need differences in our brains to be creative and innovative, and that can be hugely advantageous for businesses.”
Barriers to employment
Last year, consultancy Utopia released a handbook for embracing neurodiversity in creative industries with Universal Music, highlighting the barriers to entry many neurodivergent people face and how to overcome them. Lack of awareness was one of the biggest obstacles. “People can see ethnicity, gender and most disabilities, but neurodiversity is easier to hide. It’s neglected because it’s really misunderstood,” explains Powell. Marker has been publicly disclosing her diagnoses for four years now, but still has to remind people on set what it means. “The most common misconception is that because I look ‘normal’, I can work exactly the same as neurotypical people,” she says. “That is definitely not the case.”
Powell wants to correct some other misconceptions. “You can’t say autism is a superpower without realising that isn’t the case for everyone with autism,” she says. “For some, it can lead to failed relationships, mental health disorders and homelessness.”
“Lots of neurodivergent people find it difficult to get employed in the first place,” adds dyslexic creative director Ali Hanan, pointing to a report by Britain’s National Autistic Society showing only 16 per cent of autistic adults were in full-time work in 2016.
As the founder of global not-for-profit consultancy Creative Equals, Hanan provides guidance for companies such as Cos and Google on diversity and inclusion. “Dyslexics might be cast aside for spelling mistakes on their CV, people with Tourette’s might become nervous and have more tics, and people with autism might have sensory overload or struggle to create empathy. Recruiters need to give neurodivergent candidates the chance to communicate their needs so the employer can adapt and set them up for success.” This could be as simple as emailing questions in advance or arranging interviews so the candidate doesn’t have to travel during busy rush hours. “If you don’t accommodate neurodiversity, you won’t get the best out of people or retain them.”
Brands can offer full-time staff training and personalised adjustments, but fashion has more transient freelancers than most industries. The lack of ongoing support and the extent to which work relies on personal relationships can leave neurodivergent freelancers more vulnerable. Stylist Mia Maxwell has a borderline personality disorder and emotional dysregulation, but also experiences symptoms of ADHD and autism. “I often feel such intense excitement on a job that I drain my energy sources and become almost too hyper-focused or manic,” they explain. “I want people to like being around me so they book me again. It doesn’t always feel comfortable and can be emotionally exhausting.”
Transient teams may also harbour more personal biases. “It’s been really surprising to us how little people know,” says Zoe Proctor, co-founder of inclusive talent agency Zebedee, which specialises in increasing representation of people who have traditionally been excluded from fashion and media. “Doing workshops and raising awareness has been so important for us, to try and educate all the people on set.”
Zebedee asks all potential models to fill out a lengthy form before attending casting days designed to mimic professional sets, so its agents can see how models cope with that environment and what adjustments they might need on set. Some might not like particular music, fabrics or words. They might feel more comfortable if they’ve seen photos of the location in advance. “We get to know everybody on a personal basis before we add them to our books because we don’t want to set them up to fail,” says Proctor. “Triggers and adjustments may seem trivial to neurotypical people, but they must be respected.”
Two portraits from Nora Nord’s series on ADHD. Jade (left) is a fashion graduate who has modelled for Nick Knight and Gareth Pugh. Calm (right) is a model and musician who works in fashion retail.
© Nora Nord
Catering to individuals’ needs requires open conversations and supportive environments says Pip Jamieson, founder of UK creative networking platform The Dots. Her email signature says “Delightfully dyslexic, excuse typos!” to encourage empathy in people she works with. “My brain is wired differently, which has problems as well as the gifts of higher personal communication skills. My team knows my strengths and weaknesses and they’re open about theirs in return,” she says.
Emma Case worked as a product developer for six years in the UK, spanning high street and major luxury brands. She left the industry in 2014, coming to the conclusion that she wouldn’t get the support she needed to thrive. “ADHD and dyspraxia in and of themselves can’t impact your career,” she says of her diagnoses. “What impacts your career is whether or not you’re supported.”
Case believes this is an industry-wide issue, and links it to the unsustainable pace of production. “Working in fashion was fun, exciting and varied, which could make it a great career path for people with ADHD. But the busy open-plan studios and fast pace didn’t leave space to think. We’re high-energy people who can hyper-focus and be incredibly productive, but it comes down to the environment we’re in,” she explains. “I do not want to point fingers at a single brand because the vast majority are unaware of neurodiversity. A lot of people in fashion are exhausted, whether they’re neurodivergent or not.”
Issues with open-plan offices are mentioned by almost everyone Vogue Business spoke to. “Most of the research into what makes a brilliant office is predicated on neurotypical, able-bodied people,” says Utopia’s Powell. “We need to design for mixed needs rather than dominant needs. Neurodiversity is so individual, you cannot make generalisations.” She recommends businesses employ a neurodiversity lead to make suggestions and adjustments as needed.
Chhabra’s manager shares her notes with him after meetings, while Maxwell has an assistant for the administrative tasks they struggle with. Dyslexic designer Jim Rokos divides his work into computer and screen-free tasks, so he can vary his day. He says brands could unlock neurodivergent designers’ creativity by setting abstract rather than prescriptive creative briefs: “Instead of asking me to design a new hood, ask me to design a jacket so people can feel privacy in public.”
“There’s work to be done and I don’t think any industry is getting it right yet,” says Case. “Fashion is no worse than any other industry, but it stands to gain a lot by understanding and embracing neurodivergent people.”
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