Tall, athletic and bestowed with that particular type of beauty that is catnip to the fashion industry, Lauren Wasser looked every inch catwalk-ready as she appeared on the runway for Louis Vuitton recently.
Dressed in a long silver coat and knee-length silver shorts, the 34-year-old was the show’s biggest talking point, and of far greater interest than a starry front row that included actresses Phoebe Dynevor, Gemma Chan, Lea Seydoux and Squid Game star Jung Ho-yeon. As well she should be, for Wasser is a model with a cause.
With her looks, it was only natural that Wasser would follow in the footsteps of her model mum, Pamela Cook. And that her footsteps are different to most people’s has been no impediment to her success.
In 2012, aged 24, the Californian fell victim to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a condition caused by an excess of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria in the body and which can produce a deadly toxin in the bloodstream. After being given a one per cent chance of survival by doctors, she was placed into a medically induced coma. Ten days later, she woke up to find that gangrene had set into her feet. Her right leg was amputated. After enduring several years of excruciating pain, her left leg was also amputated in 2018.
Which made her appearance on the runway all the more inspiring, given how hard she has battled to overcome a level of physical and mental trauma that would have felled many. And if anyone can raise awareness of Toxic Shock Syndrome, it is the woman who has been dubbed “the girl with the golden legs”.
The Bond reference is an apposite one for this brave, resilient woman who has dedicated her life to raising awareness of TSS. On Instagram, where she posts as @theimpossiblemuse, Wasser has a link in her bio to dontshockme.org, a website focused on the condition which is estimated to affect between three and six people per 100,000 every year. As well as campaigning for better education around the dangers of feminine hygiene products (some cases of TSS are linked to tampon use, but it can affect anyone of any age - male or female), she is currently working on a documentary about her experience. She is also training to run the New York City Marathon in November.
Rather than seeing her prosthetic limbs as an impediment, Wasser says, she is proud of them. “Kids are always staring at me and pointing,” she said in an interview last year. “I tell them I’m like a robot. It’s something that’s inclusive. It’s educating. It shows people I’m no different than them. There’s no reason I should be here - medically, or generally,” she continued, admitting that at her lowest point, she had tried to take her own life. “This [raising awareness for TSS] is my purpose.”
Wasser was first put in front of the camera when she was four months old, when she was shot for Italian Vogue by the late Patrick Demarchelier. Since recovering from TSS, she has also appeared on the cover of Elle France, as well as working with brands including Lacoste and Hublot. While she was a guest at several fashion shows including Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton during Paris Fashion Week in March, Wasser’s turn in the Vuitton show recently was her first major catwalk appearance since ill health forced her to put her burgeoning modelling career on hold.
No show could have been more judiciously chosen to make an impact. Louis Vuitton is the world’s most valuable luxury brand, worth over £12.5 billion in 2021. Budget is never a concern at a Vuitton show, but post-pandemic, with the world finally opened up again and everyone hungry for travel, it’s fair to say that the budget was well and truly blown.
Guests were flown in from all over the world to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, a brutalist 1960s building that proved a fitting backdrop for creative director Nicolas Ghesquiere’s latest vision. Described by the designer as “nomads of the future”, the models wore Dune-like armour in gold, silver and copper whose radiance was much amplified by the sun, the show having been timed to coincide exactly with the Californian sunset. “I wanted the clothes to be like reflections, a point of contact between light and people,” Ghesquiere explained.
No expense may have been spared, but the spectacle was worth it, given how rapidly pictures from the show spread on social media. This is how luxury brands advertise now: with lavish catwalks that can cut through all the chatter. That Lauren Wasser’s cause became as big a talking point as the clothes is a significant moment for those who have suffered from Toxic Shock Syndrome, and a personal triumph for a woman who has overcome so much.
What’s more, Wasser is one of very few people with amputations working in fashion’s top tier. The last time a person with an amputation made such an impact was in 1999, when Paralympic athlete and double amputee Aimee Mullins opened the Alexander McQueen show in London. Mullins, whose husband is the British actor Rupert Friend, is now well respected for her TED talks on body positivity.
While the fashion industry isn’t known for being inclusive, in recent years it has made a concerted effort to improve its image. In a further boost for disabled representation, last month saw 18-year-old Glaswegian model Iona Hay unveiled as the star of a new Burberry campaign. Hay lost a leg to amputation after being diagnosed with bone cancer in 2008, aged just six.
Given the estimated one billion people who live with some form of disability worldwide, the fashion industry’s embracing of body diversity, however belated, is as welcome as it is overdue.
And for Wasser it represents a step forwards in the catwalk career she was so cruelly forced to abandon, but which has welcomed her back with open arms.
The Daily Telegraph