On paper, Jillian Mercado sounds like your typical twentysomething fashion blogger: ambitious, an adventurous dresser, willing to do anything for the job. Mercado is far from typical, though. While most Fashion Week attendees will strut up to Lincoln Center this week in their Nicholas Kirkwood stilettos, Mercado is bound to a wheelchair—and has been since age 12.
Born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the 23-year-old Mercado was misdiagnosed as a young child with cerebral palsy—a condition later found to be spastic muscular dystrophy. An interest in fashion ran in the family—her mother was a dressmaker and her father once worked as a shoe salesman. Despite Mercado’s condition, she says, her Dominican parents didn’t treat her any differently than they do her two sisters. “I’m pretty blessed to have them because they have pushed me to be a better person and not let negativity slow me down.”
Fast-forward a decade to Mercado’s first foray into the fashion world. While a fashion merchandising student at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, she—along with hundreds of other hopefuls—began searching for that coveted first internship at a fashion glossy. Mercado landed a gig at Condé Nast’s Allure magazine, where her wheelchair quickly became an asset rather than a hindrance. “While running around, I would place some of the bags on my chair, which would give me more space to carry more bags than with my hands,” Mercado explains. “If there was a job to pick up garments, I didn’t let that stop me—because, being an intern, that’s one of the adventures you get and I didn’t want to be left out. So I did whatever I could to not show them that I couldn’t do it, so it would not interfere with my experience.”
From the outset, Mercado was aware of the industry’s reputation as one obsessed with image and perfection, and knew that some might judge her for being in a wheelchair. “I knew I was throwing myself into the fire when I wanted to work in fashion,” she says. But she doesn’t mind when people stare at her and doesn’t want to be cut extra slack. “I work equally as hard as everyone else does in this industry, and my chair doesn’t give me permission to slack off,” she says. “My passion is equal to yours—I just come with a chair that moves.”
Mercado has been attending Fashion Week for years as a volunteer, and last February began covering the events for Patrick McMullan’s PMc Magazine, where she edits the “Who Am I” column. She also has a personal blog, Manufactured 1987, where she posts her honest thoughts on collections along with inspiring images.
Despite Mercado’s determination and her passion for the job, Fashion Week can present the occasional challenge—for instance, the venues don’t always mesh with her mode of transportation. Ramps used to be provided at Fashion Week events, but last year they disappeared, which means Mercado must wheel into Lincoln Center through its back entrance. Once inside, she also has to deal with the problem of seating. She’s not usually assigned a front-row seat—those are reserved for A-list celebrities and editors—but that’s often where she ends up, since being in the back would mean missing the whole show. Sometimes the event runners “do have this ‘Why are you front-row?’ face, but then they realize that they have nowhere to put me, so they just walk away and give me a fake smile,” she says. “When I was in the sixth grade, a physical therapist told me that no matter what I would do, I would always have to work twice as hard as everyone else because of being disabled—which has made me stronger physically, mentally, and emotionally.”
Still, “it’s all worth it to me,” Mercado says. She recalls her first moment at Fashion Week, when she knew she was right where she was meant to be. “I lost myself in that fashion show and was in the happiest moment of my life—and I knew that this is where I belong, and I couldn’t let myself down because I was too afraid” to follow her dreams.
Five months ago, Mercado was visiting a friend and left her chair outside a brownstone apartment. After he visit, she discovered the wheelchair had been stolen. “Even the police officer of 15 years couldn’t believe it,” she said. “He had never seen something like it before.” Turns out, Mercado had just switched to a new chair to replace her old one, which kept stalling in the middle of the street and was “just plain dangerous.” After the theft, her insurance wouldn’t cover the $18,000 tab, so Mercado took to the Internet to raise the funds. On Indiegogo, Mercado described how the thieves took more than just a set of wheels. “The only way I can describe it to people who have never been in a wheelchair,” she says, “is that it actually feels like someone went into your bedroom while you were sleeping and removed your two legs off. And then the feeling you get waking up, realizing that you can’t move, is how I felt.” As a young woman who values her independence above all else, Mercado was suddenly living a total nightmare. (Luckily, the Internet came through and supporters helped her raise the funds for a new chair.)
Despite the initial challenges, Mercado reports that most people in the industry have welcomed her with kindness. “Oh, darling, people come up to me all the time,” she says. “I do appreciate people who come up to me and tell me how refreshing I am, and that they want to see more of me around … I become speechless and I don’t know what to say, so I tend to giggle and say ‘thank you’ a lot. When someone appreciates you for who you are, it’s absolutely the best feeling anybody can ever have. I love to feed into positive energy, and when that’s around you, you just feel like you can take over the world.”