Bri Scalesse has been in a wheelchair since suffering a spinal cord injury in a car accident when she was just 6 years old.
Growing up, she never saw models or actresses who looked like her. But now she’s making sure future generations of differently-abled people don’t feel as left out as she once did.
“It was … hard to feel seen in a sense and that my body was desirable and beautiful and wanted and what is right and normal,” she told TODAY.”
Now a graduate student at Columbia University studying nonfiction writing, Scalesse made headlines in early October during New York’s Bridal Fashion Week.
There, she modeled for Theia, gliding down the runway in a beautiful bridal gown designed by creative director, Don O’Neill. The dress is called the “Joya” and is a slim-fitting sleeveless, floor-length gown hand-embroidered with tiny beads, sequins, and pearls.
Scalesse headed out as Coldplay’s “Fly On” played in the background.
And while the gown itself was stunning, it was Scalesse’s presence in her wheelchair that really got people talking.
The catwalk is typically a place where we see women who fit into one idea of conventional “beauty” – and we rarely see disabilities on display. A model in a wheelchair is unheard of, especially in bridal fashion.
But women in wheelchairs get married all the time – so why don’t we ever see bridal gowns modeled for them?
In fact, very few of us look like the models on the runway, so one might argue that bridal fashion should be the most inclusive of all.
Scalesse’s presence was no publicity stunt. She alone wore the dresses she was modeling, including a second design called the “Floralia” – a hand-embroidered spaghetti strap gown with a design of crystal vines and laser-cut petals. Replacing the red flowers she wore with the Joya, she sported a veil called the “Bri” with her second dress.
A third dress – the “Carmen” – had an illusion neckline and more laser-cut petals.
For each trip down the runway, her wheelchair was decked out with flowers – but no so much that it tried to hide the device so important to Scalesse.
The bridal fashion house received kudos for their inclusive show, and O’Neill was emotional as he watched the graduate student – who isn’t a professional model and isn’t currently represented by any agency – make her debut.
He said two women, in particular, inspired his vision of a more inclusive show:
“Many women inspired this moment in today’s @theiacouture show .. Frida Kahlo was one, but more importantly the beautiful Julie Helen from County Cork, whom I have known since she was a baby, was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at 18 months old , a smart super Intelligent woman working at Inclusion Ireland, radiant in a THEIA gown on her wedding day in 2016 had encouraged me to take inclusivity a step further…”
The newly minted model told TODAY that she’s like to keep on representing differently-abled women in the fashion industry and that her first runway experience was a good one.
“I met amazing people on set, which led to different jobs and then I met more amazing people. Everything I have done has been one connection leading to another.”
And while she plans to keep modeling, it’ll have to take a back seat to the book she’s currently writing about “how to feel desired and accepted in a world that isn’t built for disability.”
Be sure to scroll down for O’Neill’s video of Scalesse heading out onto the runway.
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Many women inspired this moment in today’s @theiacouture show .. Frida Kahlo was one, but more importantly the beautiful Julie Helen from County Cork, whom I have known since she was a baby , was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at 18 months old , a smart super Intelligent woman working at Inclusion Ireland, radiant in a THEIA gown on her wedding day in 2016 had encouraged me to take inclusivity a step further .. we discovered the gorgeous model @briscalesse who embodied the Goddess THEIA today in her first ever runway show.. a pure radiant light , the star of the show .. @jacquidavishair captured this moment as Bri made her first exit , beaming the brightest smile heading out in her first fashion show to Coldplay’s “Fly On” .. .. we had given Bri wings and watched her Fly ..........