I've nothing to wear...
We've all had days of flicking through rails of clothing and thinking, 'I cannot wear any of this'. Sometimes, we even wonder, 'Who these clothes are designed for?' Certainly not us. We are, we believe, the wrong shape, size, age, colour. We are not young enough, thin enough, tall enough or rich enough, to wear them. We might go home temporarily despondent or frustrated.
But what if those days were most of the days? What if shopping, rather than a pleasant or maybe mildly tedious experience, was invariably stressful and difficult? What if there really was nothing to wear, ever?
Clothes are one of the ways in which we express our inner selves and how we feel to the world. They cheer us up, give us confidence, attitude, a persona. So how does the makeover magic work when you have a non-standard body, identity or personality that makes it almost impossible to buy clothes that fit properly? What if you almost never find clothes that truly flatter or enhance a unique style or shape? What if you cannot express your inner self because there are no clothes that will allow you to do that?
Fashion icon Coco Chanel once said, "In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different." But 'different' isn't always a choice or a statement. For those who have taken part in RTE 2's new series The Fitting Room, 'different' means many things, including having no arms; being a wheelchair user; having albinism and very limited vision; being transgender; and having had treatment for cancer. This is where The Fitting Room comes in, taking on the challenge of making clothes something beautiful for all of us.
"What this show is about is fashion for everyone, not just the picture-perfect society that we're obsessed with at the moment, that Kardashian society," says Paddy Smyth, presenter of RTE's new six-part series, The Fitting Room. "Don't get me wrong," he continues, "I love that as much as the next person, but what this show is, is fashion with a purpose. Real stories, real people, and making them look great. There is the stereotypical beauty, and this show really turns that on its head, to show that there is beauty in everyone."
It is also the realisation of a long-held dream for Paddy himself. "When you've been working towards something for so long, and keep getting rejected, it's hard to believe it has happened," he says. "I went for presenting jobs, and each time I always got, 'You're good, but we don't think people will take to you...' or, 'You're funny, but I don't think people will get you...' In my head, I certainly felt it was because I was disabled; they were too scared to take a chance. But now, Ireland has really moved forward - to have a disabled gay person presenting a show about fashion for everyone!"
Paddy was born with cerebral palsy. "It affects my legs, so I walk with crutches; normally red ones or gold ones. What annoys me about Ireland is, I can't get them here, I have to go to the UK. Ireland only has the metal grey ones, and I don't want them. Even though I come across as confident, I do have days when I wish I didn't have this, and feel down in myself."
He makes no secret of the fact that childhood was tough. "My mum had cancer of the womb when I was inside her; there was a loss of oxygen, and I came two months early. Then she passed away, with cancer, when I was five. Growing up was hard. My dad was really old-school. In terms of disability, he thought someone who was disabled wouldn't really have any ambitions in life, that they would always have to be looked after. His mindset for what I could achieve was very low. But that really put a fire in me, and pushed me to show him he was wrong."
Paddy's father remarried. "I have a stepmum who is amazing, and two brothers and three sisters, but we're not fully related. I'm either related to them through my dad or my mum, or they're step; I say that we're a functional-dysfunctional family. We all get on really well."
When he was around 17, Paddy came out as gay. "Coming out as a gay man to my dad was especially hard. I was in an all-boys school at the time, and I got bullied. What's funny about that story," he says, "is that I was quite popular until I came out, then that changed. They were able to accept my disability, but not my sexuality."
That experience "really taught me a lot," he says. "It strengthened my character. I understood how fickle people can be. I got more fire and a bit of anger, and I pushed forward. I went to London and tried my hand at event PR, but it didn't really work out. I came home and started working on a commission-only basis selling Paralympic badges. That's where I learned about sales. Then I got a job in a software company, but my real passion is presenting."
Paddy took part in a now-famous episode of First Dates Ireland that was later picked up by E4, and led to his screen-test for this presenting role. "First Dates launched a social-media career for me. I would allow people into my life, the life of a disabled person in their 20s trying to live as they want, but for some reason society always puts up barriers, and I'm trying to knock them down, but in a fun way. I used to talk a lot about dating, and how to be sexual or attractive, and how, within the gay world especially, that can be so hard, because it's all about image. From there, I began to do a lot of work with big brands, talks at school and in companies, on disability and sexuality within the workplace." He also got a boyfriend: "We met on Grindr, would you believe, and now we're together five months!"
And then this new opportunity came along. "I got really emotional when I got this role," Paddy says, "because I've been knocking on these doors for years and years, hoping to get a chance to prove I could do it. Being gay in the fashion world doesn't really matter, but being disabled...
"Sadly, my dad recently passed away. He lost his fight with cancer, but he was so proud. We came to really understand each other. I'm so happy that he knew I was getting to do the show. He knew things were happening, and I'm so glad that he knew he was the one who gave me the strength, he was the one to push me, even though we fought a lot."
Ireland, he says, "is ready for this kind of fresh, innovative show that includes everyone. This show is changing society's perception of people who they might have felt sorry for. These people are warriors. They have overcome massive hurdles in their lives, there's no reason to feel sorry for them. They have the heart and the bravery to get up and tell their story. We are on the same playing field, them and me; we've all had hurdles to overcome. This isn't about how sad their lives are, it's about how brave they are." @paddyysmyth
"When I really realised that it was something real, not shallow; a way of making people feel a part of fashion, I thought, 'You can't lose, being a part of this gorgeous show!'"
So says designer Ruedi Maguire of his decision to lend his expertise to The Fitting Room. Ruedi has, natch, a deep love of fashion - but he also has a good understanding of the ways in which it can exclude. "It certainly does leave out all sorts of people. Fashion can be about making people feel bad about themselves, because they can't afford it; can't fit it; it doesn't suit them. That can leave people feeling worse about themselves. There are designers like myself and Zoe Carol designing and making clothes, loving what we do - but then take that and put it into a world of consumerism and globalisation, and it blows up. Marketing gets hold and it gets pushed and it gets spoiled. As someone who wants to create beautiful things, doing that one-on-one is probably one of the most wonderful ways, because you're doing it raw, person to person."
Ruedi believes deeply in the transformative power of clothes. "To create an outfit that someone is going to stand tall in, a piece of clothing that makes someone feel good - that's very powerful. It might sound shallow, but it's about feeling good on the outside, so you feel good on the inside, too. That can become something really magical."
In a way, this is something Ruedi has direct experience of. "Growing up in a small town in Co Tyrone, from a family of 11 - I'm bang in the middle, and a twin as well - well, there was a lot to contend with. Fashion for me was a way of self-expression; a way to forge identity. You'd be using it as a tool to show the world who you want to be, and how you want to be seen.
"Some people hide behind fashion. For me, it was a way to push myself out there, to be seen. I slowly realised this was my comfort zone - and then you realise, 'This is helping me through'. Even sexuality -it helped me express and become comfortable with myself. I had pink and blue and yellow in my hair. I always had cool clothes that were nothing like what anyone else could buy; without even knowing it, I guess fashion was definitely a channel to express my sexuality without actually saying to the world, 'I'm gay'."
Sending a signal to the world, through the way you dress? "Exactly! I've come through the thick of it. I'm in a better place now, where my sexuality is just part of who I am, but if I remember back, it wasn't that easy, and fashion was a way to present myself, even subconsciously."
This power of presentation and expression is something that Ruedi, in dressing The Fitting Room contributors, feels strongly about.
"These are people, with lives and stories and challenges, and they also want to wear that gorgeous bright-yellow dress. Why should they wear functional, practical clothes? Jersey dresses, for example, because it's easier? They are not getting the fashion experiences of other people, and why shouldn't they? It's refreshing to know that by being a part of this show, we can bring that back and give it to them."
"Meeting the people who come in through The Fitting Room, it's about connecting with that person, and finding out what I can do in terms of design for them," explains designer Zoe Carol. "I design something there on the spot, then go away, make up six outfits, and then fit them at the second meeting." It is, she says, "pressurised. It puts me on the spot in front of the cameras and in front of the contributors. But that's good."
Listening to those taking part in The Fitting Room, Zoe was struck by the truth of so much of what they described. "I certainly related. We all know what it feels like, trawling through a rail of clothing, feeling really flustered, really self-conscious, feeling out of place in terms of your self-image. We're sold this idea of 'retail therapy', but then you go there and it's bright lights, unflattering mirrors, and sizes that don't fit. I really sympathised with all of that. And they have far greater challenges than most of us. It's time to talk about that. We have this thing of not talking about disability for fear of offending. Silence can be very offensive!"
Zoe was born and brought up in Ballinasloe, Co Galway "the only Asian in the village," as she says with a laugh. "I always felt different. But I was very at home with feeling different. I kind of relished it. When I go to Hong Kong, I'm different there, too, because I'm a Westerner. But much as I enjoy being different, it can be hard, too, and in that way I connected with the people who came in through The Fitting Room. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s and being Asian, in Ballinasloe, was not mainstream. My mum was really great for that. She would say, 'You're different, and maybe people are a little fearful, but that's ok. You be you, and keep on at it'."
Zoe's parents ran the local Chinese takeaway, and yes, they conformed, to some extent, to the stereotype of tiger parents. "I performed well in school, mainly because I felt I had a responsibility to do well, for my parents, and because I'm the eldest - I have two younger brothers. Family life was very Asian. Food was a huge thing; the respect of elders; education. But they brought in things like Christmas, Easter; we blended."
After school, Zoe went to Trinity to study science, and when she graduated, her father asked, "What do you really want to do?" "What I really wanted was to go into fashion," Zoe says. "I had done my part by getting into Trinity, the first of my generation to go to university, and a good one at that. So he said 'OK'."
She went to the Parsons School of Design in New York, then worked in cashmere, leather, menswear, footwear, and opened a boutique selling high-end vintage clothing on Dublin's Drury Street, before setting up her own design label in 2011. "It was slow burning, but it was happening," she says. "I was stocked with Kildare Village, Kilkenny Design, boutiques around the country. I was getting momentum. And then I had my daughter. I always said that if I was going to be a mum, I'd try to be at home as much as I could. So we moved out of Dublin to Kilkenny, where we were living the quiet life, and then The Fitting Room came up. I hadn't been chasing anything like this, but I'm not one to turn down an opportunity, so I said yes."
And the experience has, she says, changed her. "Connecting with people, hearing their stories, has changed the way I design. I'm more considerate, more thoughtful about where I place things such as pockets, zippers, and linings. This show has impacted me in my daily life and my design life. I'm more aware of other people's challenges now; it has changed my perspective a lot."
"I'm somebody who lives and breathes fashion and clothing," says stylist Ciara O'Doherty. "Especially in terms of getting the most value you can out of your wardrobe, and I know the high street inside out. The common thread of the people involved in the show - the selection of contributors were an amazing cross-section of Irish life - was a problem with clothing. Either a problem with fit, body type, or confidence. They felt they weren't recognised by or catered for within the fashion industry."
Working on the show, Ciara quickly realised that the process would be intensely collaborative. "These people are so accomplished and competent." she says. "They have their own stylistic sense, and what I loved was how much they knew what they wanted. That's what made it so much fun to work with them. It definitely wasn't a passive challenge - they had opinions; there was kick-back. That made it more demanding, but a lot more fun.
"I've been lucky," she acknowledges, "I've never had too much difficulty finding what I wanted. It's only really when I put myself in the shoes of the participants and walked the high street for them, trying to find what they wanted, that I realised how hard it was. I was really shocked, and left very frustrated at the lack of choice. It really opened my eyes."
It wasn't just the limited range of clothing that Ciara found frustrating: "The physical shopping experience - things we take for granted, like accessibility and comfort when we go shopping - was lacking. Sometimes the best thing you can do to become more aware and understanding is to just listen. Listening to the stories, I understood more about how the shopping experience can be so complicated and challenging.
"These are people who have overcome incredibly different things. They are inspiring, accomplished, intelligent, and what they have achieved in their personal lives, their work lives, is amazing. I felt I took a little bit away from each person I met. Each of them left a mark on me in their own way. On the surface, this is a makeover show, but really it's about so much more than clothes. It's about people and stories and giving confidence and hope."
"I was approached to take part in this show by someone who had seen a couple of articles I had written about being visually impaired in our society," says Sinead McManus. "Once I got an idea of what the show was about, I thought it sounded great - completely diverse in the way it shows how difficult it is for people with difficulties and disabilities to do basic things, like shopping, never mind the bigger life things."
Sinead, who has albinism, says, "I love clothes, I love fashion and beauty and skincare. I love going shopping, but it can be very difficult. Even just to walk into a shop and see what's there. I can only see in my immediate vicinity, so I have to make sure I go through all the aisles, or I'm going to miss something. Trying to find sizes - the size tags are quite small, so I need to put them close to my face to see what I'm looking at."
On top of that, so many shops are brightly-lit, something Sinead likens to "walking into direct sunlight. I'm extremely light-sensitive, so it's physically uncomfortable." Smaller shops are good for offering assistance, she says, but in larger shops "staff are all busy, so I wouldn't ask. I would just struggle on by myself. I did recently ask for something and was told, 'It's right there,' to which I said, 'I can't see that...'"
In general, Sinead will bring someone with her - "It's easier to have someone I'm comfortable with along with me."
However, her primary reason for doing the show isn't to find the perfect outfit - "I do find shopping difficult, but not to the point where I think, 'I'll never find something to wear if I don't go on this show'. I'm here because I'm so aware that people in general are so unaware of other people's disabilities and difficulties. I get messages sometimes from parents who have a child just diagnosed with albinism, and they don't know anything about it, so how are the general public going to?"
And, as always, where there is a lack of knowledge and understanding, there can be hostility. "I definitely have had a lot of prejudice throughout my life," Sinead says. "With the show coming out, I've been talking to my mum, my twin brother and my sister about this more than we normally would. And we've been saying, 'It's shocking the amount of prejudice I've had in my adult life'. You think childhood is going to be difficult - school and so on - and I know that when I was small, my mam would get a lot of comments and stares when I was in the buggy. But if I go into town now, into Dublin, I get shouted at, at least once every trip. Sometimes they just go, 'Ha, ha, ha, there's an albino!' It can literally be that stupid." The majority of those who shout are, she says, male, and of all ages. "Anything from young lads, just 10 or 11, so you don't take offence; but all the way up to 50 and older. For me, it's so normal that I expect it."
Interestingly though, it doesn't happen when she is with a male companion - "my brother or my fiance. But if I'm with a girlfriend, or even with my mam, it will happen every time. Sometimes people think I can't hear them, because I can't see..."
What does she put it down to? "I think it's ignorance. I don't think the majority are rude; I don't think they're bad people - I just think they don't understand."
Unfortunately, ignorance and bad manners can lead to the prejudice Sinead has faced in trying to get a job. "In interviews, you can see the realisation dawning on them, and then you don't hear from them again. In the past, I've had people block my number. I used to work in reception, but I've been out of work now for three years. I've changed direction because it's been like bashing my head against a brick wall. I did counselling and psychotherapy in college, and I've been looking at personal coaching as a career; coaching other people with visual impairment or social anxiety." Sinead also writes - a blog, as well as short stories - and is hoping to make a career out of that, too.
As for The Fitting Room, "The whole idea of the show," she says, "is to show what people like me - people with visual impairment, or who have different disabilities - are capable of. To create the awareness that I am the same as you. I might have this slightly different look, but I am the same, in the grand scheme of life.'"
'The Fitting Room' airs every Monday for six weeks from April 15, 9.30pm, RTE 2
Photography by Kip Carroll