Fashion brand Chi Chi London apologizes after being called out by disabled model

Fashion retailer Chi Chi London has issued an apology after its disabled brand ambassador called it out for tokenism after hosting an event that was inaccessible. The incident has led to renewed calls for brands to “upskill themselves on disability” and do better at serving the disabled community that goes beyond just showing a disabled person in an ad.

Model and content creator Lucy Dawson took to social media to share how Chi Chi London hired her for a campaign called ‘Celebrate You,’ which was intended to champion diversity. But then, she says, Chi Chi excluded her from a brand activation because the venue wasn’t accessible.

“One of the things I always talk about is inaccessibility at events, and in that moment I felt so tokenized. As if what I just did was a great performance, performance activism, just clicks for likes, rather than doing anything for the disabled community,” she said.

The event was a pop-up store on Oxford Street, London, which had two floors with part access and a ramp. Chi Chi said it thought that access would be “sufficient” but then realized it wasn’t suitable.

“My heart felt terrible, it felt hurt, because you have just put me on this campaign about inclusion and I’ve put it out [the campaign] to my followers who are largely disabled and chronically ill, and I’ve recommended you as a brand,” Dawson said.

Chi Chi London responded and issued an apology to the disabled community for causing any upset, claiming it was a “genuine oversight and in no way intended to cause offense.”

It said: “We need to do better moving forward and will learn from this. We would never want to exclude any of our valued customers or ambassadors from an event we’re hosting.”

Following Dawson’s social media posts, upset members of the disabled community commented on Chi Chi’s social pages – only for the brand to restrict comments on posts.

Chi Chi’s apology was also extended to its decision to restrict comments. It said: “We failed to handle the responses we received from the disabled community in a way that was considerate, and we apologize wholeheartedly for this.”

Disability and inclusion marketing agency Purple Goat is on the frontline educating brands on how working with disabled talent is more than just ‘showing disabled people’ in ads.

Dom Hyans, head of strategy at Purple Goat, told The Drum: “To be truly inclusive we look for brands to upskill themselves on disability, and the possible considerations that they may have on any given campaign, whether it be minor adaptions to a brief, reasonable adjustments when it comes to workflow or ensuring (like in this case) you are thinking holistically about all aspects of a campaign and ensuring everyone, disabled or non-disabled, is being equally included and valued.”

Hyans said he hopes Dawson’s story helps Chi Chi and other brands to “reflect on what they are doing to ensure they are being inclusive, and bring in those with lived experience to help ensure that campaigns are as inclusive and successful as possible.”

The impact of the pandemic and the switch to virtual and hybrid events made it easier for brands to host accessible activations. But coming out of Covid with the return to in-person events should put event accessibility squarely back on the agenda. In September, Sebastian Boppert, head of European communications at events management and ticketing website Eventbrite, told The Drum: “Coming back from Covid, we have an opportunity here to rebuild a more inclusive events industry that allows everyone to enjoy the thrill of live events. But ending social isolation means ending it for everyone, and we have to work together to do so.”