Why this woman is using a model who lost both legs and a girl with a wasting illness on Belfast catwalk
As Belfast's first Alternative Fashion Week gets under way this week, event organiser Shelley Rodgers from Rostrevor tells Karen Ireland why becoming a foster mum at the same time as losing a parent inspired her to create the unique and inclusive show
Shelley Rodgers is a woman on a mission. With her long dreadlocks, Doc Marten boots and hippy style, Shelley looks nothing like the average fashionista. However, she claims fashion is her life and she has created Belfast Alternative Fashion Week to provide a platform for people not usually seen on a catwalk and expose us to another type of beauty.
Her models will be women who have suffered disability and debilitating conditions, but are still proud to strut their stuff in the name of fashion.
The aim is to make fashion accessible to all, regardless of their age, style, size or ability, and this will be showcased in a series of events starting this week and running up until December at venues throughout the city.
Shelley (41), who lives with her partner, Ciaran Sherry (40), a musician, in Rostrevor, Co Down, and their four-year-old foster child, Maya, who is her niece, explains: "I used to be a lecturer in fashion and photography, but I had to leave my job as my mother Margaret got sick with cancer and was given six weeks to live.
"This was the worst time in my life. My heart was breaking.
"However, at the same time Maya had just been born and as her mum wasn't coping well, my mum had promised to bring her up for my brother."
When her beloved mother passed away, Shelley discussed with Ciaran the implication and commitment of fostering Maya themselves.
"He was in complete agreement and knew it was something we had to do. Maya was only four months old when she came to live with us, so it was all very instant. One minute I wasn't a mother, the next I was, but we love her so much and feel very blessed to have her as part of our lives."
Despite the sudden nature of parenthood for Shelley, the baby girl quickly became part of life for the couple.
"Unlike most mothers, I didn't get the chance to prepare myself for Maya's coming," she recalls. "It just happened, but thankfully we bonded straight away and I love being a mum. It is the most important thing I do. I was petrified at the start."
But Shelley was also dealing with losing a parent, too.
"It was tough after losing mum," she adds. "We had to get used to a whole new family structure. She was only 59 when she passed away so quickly.
"I get lots of good parenting advice from my grandmother who is 85," she adds.
With motherhood so suddenly part of her everyday life, Shelley was looking for a career which she could balance with looking after Maya, and the idea for a new online fashion magazine with a difference was born.
"I also wanted to do something I loved and which I knew would make a difference. Starting a whole new career at my age was daunting, but I founded the Equal Fashion Magazine, which is an online outlet for all kinds of alternative fashion, music, art, tattoos and business. It's a bit of an eclectic mix, but it has been really well received," says Shelley.
"At the same time I launched an agency - the Alternative Commercial Equality Agency, which represents all kinds of talent.
"Then about eight months ago, I decided I wanted to bring the pages of the magazine to life, so the idea of the Alternative Fashion Week happened," adds Shelley.
Included in the model line-up will be some of the talent she represents, including a double amputee who lost both her legs from a flesh eating bug and a former body builder who is suffering from a body wasting disease.
"We never turn anyone away because of their abilities or disabilities," says Shelley. "We see the beauty and individuality in everyone." Perhaps it's not surprising that Shelley is keen to bring a different vibe to fashion as horror movies are her guilty pleasure and she is a huge fan of the magical world of Harry Potter. "I love watching creepy horror movies - sometimes for fun. They remind me of Halloween as that has always been my favourite time of the year. And my favourite book is Harry Potter as it is so well thought out and utterly captivating. The books have a way of bringing you into a totally new world."
And while fashion has always been in her blood, she finds events such as mainstream fashion shows a bit too straight-laced. Now, Shelley wants to push the boundaries with her magazine and the events this week.
"I've always loved fashion," she explains. "I studied art and photography and then did a post grad and a Masters, so I was at university for eight years. After that, I went on to work in photography and then became a lecturer. I have always been a doer, a bit of a fidget and eager to learn as many new and fascinating things as possible. I also taught photography to special needs children up to 15 years old and teaching has always made me happy, too."
It was while she was at college that she met Ciaran, although after university they went their separate ways. When they met up again 18 years later, Ciaran admitted that he had always carried a photograph of Shelley around in his wallet for all those years, believing her to be the one.
"As a musician - who has worked with Van Morrison - he is very creative, too, so we work well together," she says. "We have been together four years now and we just gel. This time it is for keeps.
"He helps me out on the magazine with the music side of things. He is also so good with Maya. He has made a promise and a commitment to her and I love seeing them together."
Wanting to bring something unique to Belfast and Northern Ireland, Shelley says it will be like nothing the city has ever seen before.
"There are models coming from all over the UK to take part in the events and designers, too, including Northern Ireland's Shauna Fay and Aleah Leigh from London, who has worked on LA fashion week. There will be a real fairytale and swansong theme and there are many make-up artists working to make single stunning pieces for the catwalk.
"The event will also include art, music, tattoo work, dreads and tribal work. It will be a broad spectrum and there will be something for everyone. London- based designer Victoria Guggenheim, who worked on the Hollywood blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, will also be taking part.
"It will mostly feature hand-made, one-off (fashion) pieces and there will be body art work and tattoo displays."
Shelley describes her own fashion sense as "hippy" with a nod to punk. She recently fulfilled a lifelong dream and got her hair in dreads, and is loving her new look.
"I've wanted dreads for years, but never really had the courage to do it," she adds.
"This year I just decided to go for it. When I wake up in the morning, my hair is done and I am ready to go. It is low maintenance, which is something I really appreciate as a busy working mum."
But Shelley's new look was a change that had to grow on her partner.
"It took Ciaran a while longer to get used to the dreads, but he loves them now as much as I do."
While bringing such a different fashion showcase to Belfast might make the average person baulk, Shelley is confident it is a good move.
"I don't think I have any fears as I always look for the positive in every situation and never ever think of fear.
"Since I was a child, I have always woken up in the morning happy and ready to embrace the day. It's just the way I've always been."
Belfast Alternative Fashion Week: Monday, November 21, Titanic Queer Show!, Europa Hotel, Belfast, 8pm, tickets £30 and Grand Finale, Sunday, December 4, Whitla Hall, Queen's University, Belfast, 6pm, tickets £30. For details and booking visit equalfashionmagazine.com