Threads Fashion Show features new adaptive line
Growing up, Gaia Herrick oftentimes felt left out. Without any positive depictions of someone with the same disability as hers, she felt out of place and unattractive. Now, many years later, she seeks to be the representation she never had growing up as a model in the upcoming Threads Fashion Show.
Herrick was born with muscular dystrophy, a degenerative, neuromuscular disorder that causes progressive muscular wasting. It means her body is unable to flush out the lactic acids — chemicals your body produces to break down carbohydrates — from her muscles. Herrick described her condition as a constant burning sensation in every muscle of her body, as though she were intensely exercising.
Herrick said that some areas of her body, like her legs, are stronger than others, so she is able to walk for short distances. However, she is still dependent on the use of a wheelchair to get around.
“Sometimes the pain is really awful, and sometimes it really sucks losing the ability to do things that I love, but generally the things that are the most upsetting is the ableism and the lack of accessibility in my environment,” she said.
Herrick transferred to Central Michigan University from Kellogg Community College in the fall of 2018. She originally attended college to study genetics in the hopes of helping to develop treatments for genetic neuromuscular disorders in patients like herself. However, one of her genetics professors pulled Herrick aside and told her to consider changing her major because grad schools were unlikely to accept her.
“STEM is incredibly competitive and it's also incredibly underfunded, so labs are not going to pay money to make them accessible when they could just bring in an able-bodied person to do it instead,” Herrick said.
She was devastated. Her dreams of someday becoming a scientist and helping others seemed to vanish in front of her eyes.
It wasn’t until one of her friends had later told her about a disability studies course that she was taking that Herrick’s newfound passion was born. Herrick signed up for it the very next semester.
Through the course, she said she went through a journey of self-discovery and empowerment. Herrick said her professor and mentor, Dr. JoDell Heroux was able to help her recognize that everything she had disliked about herself was from her own internalized ableism.
It was also during this time she had also learned that she could make a career for herself working in advocacy. She changed her major to public and nonprofit administration with minors in music, German and disability studies, and is now working towards a career to help those with disabilities in need.
While Herrick was disappointed her dream of becoming a scientist to help others like herself had not worked out, she was glad to be able to find a new career helping out those with disabilities.
Experience in activism
Despite her newfound career path, Herrick said she has been an activist for a long time.
“I am always seeking to challenge people's belief of what disability looks like and what disabled people are capable of,” Herrick said.
Herrick said that she hadn't seen anyone like herself until she was 10 years old. Because of this, she described her earlier years as isolating and lonely. Being separated from the able-bodied children had made her feel out of place.
The beauty and fashion industries did not showcase people with disabilities like hers, Herrick said, and she felt left out. That caused her a lot of damage as she was growing up.
Now, she hopes to break the social stigmas surrounding those with disabilities through her involvement in the Threads Fashion show.
“I think it's such an empowering experience and in so many ways and so many aspects of my life I seek to be the representation that I never had growing up,” Herrick said.
Fashion had always played a large role in Herrick’s life, as her parents encouraged self-expression when she was younger. She described her fashion sense as constantly evolving growing up, and she was inspired by the many colorful garments her family would bring back to her from other countries.
“I loved seeing how diverse and wonderful different interpretations on fashion were,” she said.
Herrick said her latest interest in fashion has been inspired by drag.
“I love how you don't have to limit your aesthetic to one thing. … You could do masculine, androgynous, you can do feminine,” she said. “If you wanted to, you could do alien and it was amazing. I absolutely fell in love with that.”
Involvement in Threads
Herrick’s participation in the Threads Fashion Show has been in the works since last fall.
Dr. Heroux had reached out to Herrick on behalf of student designers who were looking to do an adaptive line for the show. Herrick, who had always wanted to model for the show, immediately agreed.
While Herrick has had previous experience modeling before, she said that this is her first time walking a runway.
This year’s theme for the Threads Fashion Show is “Cosmic Odyssey” — one that Herrick is very excited for since she was told that there would be planets on the runway.
"It's over the top and I live for that," Herrick said.
She was featured in some of the show's promotional shots, and said that it was an exciting opportunity to have the creative freedom to put together a look. She loves the overall larger-than-life aesthetic of this year's show and looks forward to being able to represent those with disabilities in a beautiful and empowering way.
“I think for so long, disabled people haven't been associated with beauty and it's a shame especially considering that so many people are disabled — one in four Americans. ... If you live long enough, you will also have the honor of being disabled,” she said. “So it seems kind of silly to not want to embrace the diversity of people.”
Herrick said through her participation in the event, she hopes to show others that people like her can be bold and confident and help them see that a disability is nothing to be ashamed of.
“There's this assumption that we can't be sexy and attractive and confident in our bodies, and that is something that I'm always seeking to challenge,” Herrick said.
With the help of her designer, Cassidy Marshall, Herrick worked to make the adaptive line powerful, sexy and empowering.
“Disability is a beautiful thing,” Herrick said. “It’s not something that you need to be ashamed of, it’s not something that needs to be hidden. It’s something that we can celebrate and love and value.”
Herrick said one of the hardest parts of having muscular dystrophy has been coming to terms with her own mortality. While the expected lifespan for those with the disorder has been getting progressively longer, the life expectancy is still shorter than average lifespans.
Herrick said she would not change her experiences if given the opportunity.
“I’m, in a weird way, kind of thankful for the perspective,” Herrick said. “I am thankful for every season that I am able to experience, for every flower I get to smell, every sunset I get to see. ... I think that just the worst part is losing the ability to do the things that you love with the progressive weakness.”
This, she said, is one of the battles of her internalized ableism that she is still trying to work through. Having to rely more on other people to be there for her as her condition progressively worsens and losing her independence has been tough on her.
“It’s hard to have to rely and trust that other people can be there for you,” Herrick said.
Still, Herrick puts much pride in her disability.
“I, of course, don't want people to only see me as a disability, but if people look at me and they don’t see my disability then they’re not seeing me," she said. "I’m proud of my disability and there’s no hiding it for me. It’s very physically and visibly apparent and I think really taking pride in that identity is very empowering in and of itself.”
She hopes that on April 15, the day of the fashion show, people will be able to see the beauty and power within disabilities and come to realize they are confident and capable of doing anything.