It's fair to say that Huddersfield University student Laura Richter has faced what many would view as an uphill battle to achieve her aim of getting a fashion degree.
But the 22-year-old from Highburton, who has the genetic muscle wasting condition muscular dystrophy, has not just succeeded in graduating, she has been awarded a coveted first class honours degree, putting her in the top 20% of graduates. She even showcased her own final collection on the catwalk in the university’s annual graduate fashion show.
While Laura admits that she found her final year demanding she has a positive attitude to life and was 100% committed to her studies. “I had to be very focussed; eating the right things and sleeping the right amount,” she explained, “I had to be strict with my time.”
Perseverance is something that Laura has had to acquire over the years. While still at school she encountered discrimination from other pupils, who would comment on the way she walked with a limp and her lack of facial expression. And when seeking a placement for a year out in industry she ended up flying all the way to Australia to get the opportunity to work - having been turned down by companies closer to home.
In her final year, anticipating that she’d need to be close to the university fashion studio, Laura moved into adapted university accommodation. And the fashion department created a special low-level work table in the studio.
Many students find their final year difficult, but fashion students face the added challenge of producing a graduate collection, which is modelled at a professionally-staged show.
Laura, who has used a wheelchair since she was a teenager at Shelley College, decided that her final collection, The Beauty Battle, would reflect some of her concerns about how the fashion world fails disabled people. Two of the 12 garments she produced are designed specifically for wheelchair users - she modelled these herself on the catwalk - and others have elements inspired by the techniques and tailoring approach she learned in order to create the ‘wheelchair outfits’.
It is no accident that Laura chose the title The Beauty Battle for her garment collection, which was inspired by a visit to The Royal Armouries in Leeds. She says that putting on make-up and choosing her clothes for the day ahead are like putting on battle armour. And she has always maintained that the fashion industry is losing out by not recognising that women with disabilities want to look good - largely because it is one of the few things they can control about their lives. As around 16% of the working age population has a disability it’s clear that this remains a largely untapped market.
Laura, who has the Facioscapulohumeral form of muscular dystrophy, which mainly affects the face, shoulders and limbs, explained how she approached her ‘wheelchair outfits’: “I had to adapt my pattern cutting - we are trained to cut for a standing figure but I had to cut for an L-shaped figure. The trousers that I made had elastic panels at the sides and the back was extended further than the front so that the waistband looked straight on someone sitting down. Quite a few people have commented that a lot of people spend a lot of time sitting down, either those at work or elderly people with less mobility, so designs need to take that into account.
“This influenced my other designs and I put in some panels to mould trousers around the knee, almost as if they were a shoulder. And my cape has four pockets, two that are at the level you’d need when seated, two for when you are stood up.”
Laura took a tailored and structural approach - from the historic armour - for her garments, but chose colours and fabrics inspired by the green landscape of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which she visited to see the WWI poppies installation.
For her degree in Fashion with Marketing and Production she majored in production and is hoping to get a job in garment technology. She’s started applying for roles and is hoping that she won’t encounter the same problems she did when trying to find a work placement. “I’m hoping that getting a first will help,” she says, “but finding the right place is a lot to do with access to buildings. I might find a job and they might like me but then I wouldn’t be able to access the building.” Part of her year in industry was spent at the Oxfam Online headquarters in Batley, in a new-build warehouse that was perfect for her needs, but she accepts that many companies are based in much older premises that can’t easily be adapted.
However, Laura has her own electric wheelchair and mobility van, which give her a high degree of independence, and it’s this that she wants to stress to prospective employers.
There’s no doubt that the young fashion designer is a remarkable young woman with a real determination to succeed. Now she just needs the chance to prove what she can do.