Jillian Mercado always dreamed of working in the fashion world, but as a young woman with muscular dystrophy, she didn’t see others who looked like her in fashion magazines. No matter: she set out to change that.

Now she’s one of the foreground models with a visible disability. She uses her position to advocate for others and challenges the outdated beauty ideals of the fashion industry, working with clients like Nordstrom, Diesel, and CR Fashion Book — even landing a Teen Vogue cover last year.

PERFECT NUMBER chatted with Jillian about her unconventional career path, activist efforts, and advice for those interested in championing representation and inclusivity in the fashion industry.

PERFECT NUMBER: Let’s first talk a bit about your background. You studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT)? 

JILLIAN MERCADO: Yes, in marketing.

PN: How did you decide to work in the fashion industry? And how did you go from marketing to being in front of the camera?

JM: I loved fashion from a very young age, but I just didn’t realize that it could be a career. When I was two or three, I would watch my mom sew. She was an embroiderer. I always knew what fabric and yarn she used, and what proper placement looked like. My dad was working on the Lower East Side of New York as a shoe salesman. I loved knowing about shoes, the designer, if they were crocodile or a special kind of leather.

Then, senior year of high school, I took a tour at FIT. Even at that age, I still didn’t know that fashion was an industry I could work and be accepted in. My parents wanted me to do something in the medical field, but I didn’t see myself happy there. When I toured FIT, I felt at home there. There was an abundance of creativity everywhere. I was like, I will do everything I can to make this my next voyage in my educational journey. I got accepted and studied fashion merchandising management, which was more of the business side of fashion. I also got to experiment in each department and see what I liked to do. I used to collect a lot of magazines, like a lot of fashion magazines —

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PN: Which ones?

JM: Oh my gosh, so many. I remember my first one was CosmoGirl, then there was Cosmopolitan,  Self Service, Teen Vogue, W, V, British Vogue, Zink… I tried to pick fashion magazines that were more editorial-based than article-based.

PN: Back to FIT. How did you transition out of the business side of fashion?

JM: I loved being in the zone, getting things done with a group or a team and creating a baby — an editorial. I was also getting many internships. I interned with Patrick McMullan, a celebrity paparazzi photographer, and then got a job with him. I worked with Patrick for three or four years. 

PN: What were you doing there? 

JM: I was a creative assistant, working for a creative director. I did things like photo retouching, or working on the column, “Who Am I?” which featured people from many walks of life. It was awesome because I got to meet so many people in New York City nightlife, which was a whole new world. I got to meet Alexander Wang and Marc Jacobs while they were partying. I was also interning at Allure and got to work at Veranda in the sales department. But during this time, I noticed the lack of representation in the whole industry for people like myself.

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PN: What was that like?

JM:  I knew it was weird that I was always the only one who has a visible disability. The place where I felt most at home really didn’t have space for me. The idea to be an editor came to me because I never saw myself in front of the camera, but I was really good at bringing people in. I was like, “let me just be an editor so I can hire people like myself,” to be on covers, to be in features, whatever — I wanted to bring a little bit more diversity and show people how important it is.

PN: But you ended up modeling yourself!

JM: I met the artistic director of Diesel, Nicola Formichetti. He casted me in his first Diesel Worldwide campaign. That was my first official modeling job. I got to work with photographers Inez and Vinoodh, who are legendary. It’s been six years now, but it’s still trippy that that was my first job as a model! In front of the camera, I was creating more impact than I ever thought I could. My dream was to become an editor, but life threw me a curve: I had a responsibility to help pave the way for people who wanted to be in this business but weren’t given the opportunity.

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PN: Let’s talk more about that inclusivity. How can brands actually make things better?

JM: If you don’t see the world reflected in your brand, then who are you selling it to? If you’re preaching and saying that your company is for everyone, it’s unfair to take people’s money, but not represent them in your brand. It makes more of an impact when people can see themselves in the company. In a lookbook or editorial, it’s powerful when someone can see someone who looks like them, with the same complexion. They might think, “Oh, this shirt might not look as crazy on me as I thought it might!”

PN: Inclusivity is a trend right now. 

JM: We’re just tired of always seeing the same thing — blue eyes, white, blonde, tall — again and again and again. I think that it’s happening now because of social media — I think that’s the only reason. We have the platform to be our own reporters and activists and don’t have to wait around for others to do it. When a brand does something wrong, people talk about it on Instagram or Twitter and it creates a snowball effect. It influences the way consumers buy.

PN: Would your career path be different if we didn’t have social media?

JM: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think I would have been a model this quickly if not for social media. 

PN: How can brands be authentic in their desire to reflect diversity, instead of being tokenizing or capitalizing on a trend?

JM:  It starts internally. If you’re having a meeting with your team and notice that there is still a lack of diversity, that’s a problem. You can’t change the outside until you change the inside. Brands should think about who they are hiring, and hopefully, they’re hiring people from all walks of life. When you’re diverse internally, it should be really easy to diversify your marketing and advertising.

PN: What does inclusivity mean for you?

JM: Seeing the outside world represented in a brand. For instance, I grew up in New York, where there are all kinds of people. I loved connecting with people who had different stories and different journeys. A brand should reflect that, too. If you were walking down the street and you only saw one kind of person, you would think there was something seriously wrong. Also, inclusive campaigns should be used wherever a brand would normally advertise — not just in New York, but in Ohio, too. Just because a brand does a gender-fluid campaign doesn’t mean they should only market in a place where gender fluidity is accepted. Then they wouldn’t be challenging or changing anything.

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PN: Do you think we as a society have the ability to become truly inclusive? 

JM: I think so. I think it just takes the people in a position of power to take a stand and become allies. Once that happens, others will follow.

PN: As an activist, how would you define successful activism? 

JM: If you find yourself changing one person’s mindset, that’s a success. If I can talk to someone and ask them, “Why do you think it was appropriate to talk to me in a demeaning way just because I have a disability?” Hopefully, that person will not ever do it again, and instead will find a new way to interact.

PN: How do you feel the perception of femininity and beauty are shifting? 

JM: It’s a really interesting shift right now. We’ve had years of brainwashing, and now we are reevaluating what it means to be “feminine.” Social media has allowed the conversation to become more open. People can say, “This is what happened to me in this scenario. Has it happened to anybody else? If so, what can we do to not continue that to happen?”  We are moving forward because people are speaking out. People are tired of feeling bad because of the ignorance of others. It isn’t hard to treat someone with respect.

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PN: Can you name a few people that are a source of inspiration to you?

JM: One of them is Mama Cax. She is an amputee model, and we didTeen Vogue covers last year. She’s also an activist for the disability community. She’s from Haiti, and talks a lot about what’s going on in her home country. The funny thing is, my parents are from the Dominican Republic, which is close to Haiti, and it’s nice to know that we’re friends despite how these two neighboring countries always fighting. She’s amazing.

Also, Viktoria Modesta, a bionic artist. She’s determined to talk about disability in the entertainment world. She does a lot of conferences with technology because she realizes that people with disabilities live through technology.

Last, there’s Noor Tagouri, a Muslim journalist. Her interview style is about getting to know the person, why they’re who they are, what journey they’ve taken, and how they can teach others. Her form of journalism is storytelling. A few weeks ago I had a situation with an airline — they destroyed my chair. Noor told me I needed to talk about it and connected me with different media outlets who could help me call attention to the problem. Then I found out that 24 assistive devices (which can cost from $4K to $10K) get damaged each day in the United States alone. Most people don’t have money lying around for when the airport damages their wheelchair. Airlines always say they will fix it, but it’s been a month since my chair has been damaged, and the problem hasn’t been solved.

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PN: How do you feel about Los Angeles right now? What led you here?

JM: I was born and raised in New York. I still have some family in the Dominican Republic, but most of my family live in New York. We’re a very big family, and we’re all very close. Everybody knows everybody’s business. I came to Los Angeles because I needed to begin my journey as an adult in a new place. Also, I get seasonal depression really badly. When I’m in a place where there is sun, my attitude changes and I feel way more at peace. I needed to acknowledge my mental health first.

PN: What advice would you give younger friends who want to learn about inclusivity?

JM: Do the research. Contact people who have done it, who you look up to, and have conversations with them. The internet is a beautiful place to start. There are tons of articles being written about what makes a brand inclusive and what doesn’t. Also, be as authentic as you claim. People will notice if you’re just doing it because it’s a trend and not because you actually want change to happen.