Representation for Disability Fashion by Shakilya Lawrence
Photo provided by Keisha Greaves
Inclusion and diversity are at the forefront of many corporations and businesses as society strives to create spaces for everyone to be heard and seen. Over time, major strides have been made but there are still some industries that are lacking representation. When you take a look at the fashion industry in 2020, models better represent our diverse society from a racial, gender, and cultural standpoint. You can look at fashion shows and ads and finally see someone that looks like you, no matter your age, weight, race, sexual orientation, or disability. Fashion itself, both commercial and couture, has begun to show this inclusion with the rise of gender less and gender-fluid clothing to better include members of the queer community. However, one area in fashion that deserves more representation is disability fashion. Some designers like Tommy Hilfiger are already ahead of the curve by creating adaptive clothing lines, but overall awareness and representation for disability fashion is lacking.
One woman is working to change that.
Keisha Greaves—the founder of the brand Girls Chronically Rock—has created a fashion line specifically tailored towards people with chronic illnesses and disabilities. The inspiration for the line came from her diagnosis which she received at the age of twenty-four. Fashion has always been in Keisha's nature. Since her middle school years, she's always known that she wanted to be a designer. Growing up, her role models were Kimora Lee Simmons and Betsey Johnson due to their unique style, hustle, and growth within the industry demonstrated through their successful businesses. Her aspirations led her to obtain her Bachelor's in Fashion Design and Merchandising from Framingham State University. As she was obtaining her Master's in Business Management at Cambridge, she began first experiencing symptoms of muscular dystrophy. Her legs would give out on her suddenly and she also began to notice that she was having trouble with lifting her right arm. Initially, Keisha thought she needed to make a lifestyle and diet change, however, as the symptoms persisted she knew something else was the issue. After multiple doctors and specialists visits, she received news that she was diagnosed with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy. This specific form of the disease progressively worsens over time and affects the body from the limbs of the shoulders downwards to the legs.
The news—especially at such a young age—came as a total shock to her, particularly since she'd never heard of the disease before and no one in her family had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy to her knowledge. Receiving this diagnosis at such a young age meant she had to re-envision her future, but for years she struggled with accepting her new reality. "I was definitely in denial for a long time [and] I didn't tell anybody at first what was going on with me. My family knew because of my mom," Keisha explained. She kept the diagnosis hidden from friends, coworkers, and employers by masking her muscular dystrophy as other ailments such as a sprained ankle or the product of being in a car accident. "When friends would ask me to come out [to hang], I would tell them I couldn't. I didn't understand what was happening to me."
The breakthrough in her acceptance came a few years later when she decided to write her first blog post about her experiences living with muscular dystrophy on Tumblr. "It took that moment of typing it and saying everything out loud to [realize] that I had muscular dystrophy. Getting that great feedback on social media made me feel better and gradually opened the door to [acceptance]." The outpouring of support she received from loved ones and friends who hadn't known her diagnosis allowed her to come to grips with her new reality and offered her support in her journey. As time went on she stopped hiding her diagnosis and began embracing it.
The idea for Girls Chronically Rock came shortly after.
Keisha knew she wanted to pursue her dreams and create a brand and be able to share the story of her diagnosis through it. The catchy, empowering phrase came to her one night as she was lying in bed, brainstorming about her brand. She knew she wanted the brand name to include the word "chronic" as a way to embrace chronic illnesses. She also knew she wanted to create a line for comfort—including graphic t-shirts and inspirational quotes. From there the iconic brand was born. The fashion line Girls Chronically Rock began with colorful graphic women's t-shirts with inspirational and empowering quotes such as "Chronically Ill Badass". However, now it has expanded to include hats, bracelets, hoodies, men and kids lines, and even includes a special line specifically for rare diseases.
Keisha expressed that—like many creators—she initially had reservations about how people would react and receive the brand and the message she was conveying. Her hope was people would love the concept and designs of her t-shirts and that it would help bring encouragement, empowerment, and motivation to those who wear it. Her expectations were actualized and the brand was extremely well received on social media within the chronic illness and disability communities.
Today, her brand has turned into a movement.
Girls Chronically Rock developed into more than just a fashion line. Keisha's story made it easier and helped normalize talking about living chronic illnesses and disabilities. She also motivated many others to share their own stories, whether personal or from loved ones living with conditions. The sharing of stories and experiences eventually fostered a community that could relate to, lend support, and offer strength to those who were a part of it. Connecting with others via social media greatly helped Keisha with her daily struggles and her road to total acceptance of her diagnosis.
"Yes, you have the support of family and friends but there's nothing like talking to somebody who understands what you are living with daily," Keisha clarified.
Her connections to other people with muscular dystrophy, lupus, MS, and other illnesses via social media eventually led her to become more involved within the community. On the brand's website, she continues sharing her personal stories and experiences through the site's blog. While most of her posts feature incredibly relatable, inspirational, and motivational content, she also uses the platform to continue raising awareness for rare and chronic illnesses. On top of her blog posts, Keisha also spreads awareness as an ambassador for the Massachusetts Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) by sharing her experiences through speaking engagements.
Looking forward to the future, Keisha hopes to be able to create an adaptive clothing line for Girls Chronically Rock. "Adaptive can be for everybody! I want more people to be aware that adaptive isn't just for people with disabilities." Keisha expressed that she hopes major fashion designers and department stores like Macy's and JC Penney would not only come out with their version of adaptive clothing lines but would also start selling adaptive clothing. Keisha also spoke about creating a podcast for the brand, which she can use as another platform to spread awareness, connect with others, and share stories.
Outside of a future adaptive clothing line, she also had the idea to make Girls Chronically Rock inspired by the new normal we all face due to the coronavirus pandemic. Other aspirations of hers include getting her line into local boutiques and department stores, attending more trade shows, and participating in NYFW. But ultimately, she wants to just continue spreading awareness and positivity, uplifting others within and outside her community, and building her brand into an empire.