Accessible Is the New Black: A guide to innovation in adaptive fashion
5 minute read
September 9, 2020
A FASHION VOID FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES…
“Today there are more clothing options designed for pets than there are for people with disabilities.”
—Disability Fashion Stylist, Stephanie Thomas, Cur8able
“I can still be stylish and not look like I just came out of a hospital, because that’s what a lot of adaptive fashion looks like. I want to look young, fly, fresh, and fashionable, just like any other woman my age would.”
—Model, actor and influencer, Lauren “Lolo” Spencer
“[In the early 2000s] most of what was out there were clothes for [older people] living in long-term care facilities. I realized there was nothing for younger people. [I was] motivated to fill this void.”
—Designer Izzy Camilleri, creator of the IZ Adaptive line at Zappo’s
“It’s much better than it was 10 years ago, there’s no denying that. But there’s much work to be done. A lot of brands are stuck at visibility and tokenism as opposed to true representation.”
—Mama Cax, model and amputee who worked with Tommy Hilfiger, Diesel, Nordstrom and the United Nations. (Mama Cax passed away in December of 2019)
“Disability overlaps with aging and universal design. We need to see it as part of our life cycle. It’s something that we need to not only see from a human rights standpoint but also for its economic value.”
—Grace Jun, co-founder and executive director of Open Style Lab, a design incubator for functional fashion.
… IN AN EXPANDING MARKET
“The global market for clothing geared towards physically disabled people with medical issues is expected to grow from $278.9 billion in 2017 to $400 billion by 2026…Adaptive clothing may look visually dissimilar from mainstream apparel, but most labels already have some of the skills needed to launch such a line.”
—The $400 Billion Adaptive Clothing Opportunity, Vogue Business
“Roughly 85.3 million people in the U.S. are living with a disability, according to recent Census Bureau data. The American Institutes for Research estimates the disposable income of this group to be a massive $490 billion USD per year. Those numbers beg the question: how, in the age of inclusivity, is the fashion industry still widely ignoring individuals with disabilities?”
—It’s Long Overdue for Fashion to Think About People With Disabilities, HyperBeast
BUT SOME FASHION COMPANIES ARE ADAPTING FOR ACCESSIBILITY
In 2016, high-end sportswear designer Tommy Hilfiger, launched Tommy Adaptive, a line of adaptive clothing for children and soon expanded to include lines for adults with various needs as well. Tommy Adaptive features “jeans that fit over prosthetic legs to shirts with easy-open necklines.” The Tommy Adaptive Straight Fit Jean for example, “can be raised up to four inches to accommodate someone in a wheelchair or donning prosthetic limbs.”
Target launched its first line of adaptive clothing for children in 2017, designed in partnership with the parents of special needs children. “The clothing comes without tags or seams, a boon for children who find new textures irritating. Bodysuits are easy access for diaper changes, while wheelchair-friendly jackets have side-openings and zip-on sleeves for easier dressing.” In 2019, they added Halloween costumes and this year have expanded to include lines for adults with physical and mental disabilities as well.
The shoe e-retail giant Zappos has also started selling adaptive shoes and clothing. “Zappos Adaptive is a curated shopping line that brings together innovative, functional, and fashionable products.” They offer items like reversible clothing, tear-away tags, tagless shirts, shirts with magnetic buttons, and stability-enhancing sneakers. Their latest offering allows customers to purchase a single shoe, or differently sized shoes, in a full range of shoe sizes, widths, and brands.
In 2015, Nike created the FlyEase, an easy to put on athletic sneaker inspired by a letter from a teenager with cerebral palsy who wanted to be able to tie his shoes independently. Last year Nike launched their latest FlyEase model, with “a wraparound zip at the back of the shoe [that] connects to cables that tighten the laces – allowing the wearer to put on the shoe with one hand.” They are partnering with Handsfree Labs Inc, a pioneer in hands-free footwear technology, to make products aimed at athletes competing in the 2020 Paralympics.
MEET THE DISABILITY FASHION INNOVATORS
Stephanie Thomas didn’t make much of the fact that she wasn’t able to button the left cuff of her shirts during the Miss Kentucky pageant. The congenital amputee, born without a thumb on her right hand, had embraced the unbuttoned cuff as something of a style signature. But it was while competing in the pageant that “she began researching clothing and retail trends for people with disabilities.”
In 2004 she developed her Disability Fashion Styling System™, a method of styling that she applies to every aspect of her work. “All of the looks I pull are Accessible, Smart, Fashionable. Accessible – easy to put on and take off. Smart for the wearer’s health, medically safe. And fashionable: it must work for the wearer’s lifestyle, body type, and the wearer must love it.”
Stephanie has used her Disability Fashion Styling System™ “consulting with brands about the countless financial, social, and ethical reasons for including these customers. “Disability is the overlooked D in diversity.”” Her work can be seen on her website Cu8able.com, where she showcases adaptable clothing, and curates looks, for disabled folk.
When asked about the future of adaptive fashion, especially during the current health pandemic, Stephanie said: “Unlike the Functional Fashion Movement of the 1960’s and the Pre-COVID Adaptive Fashion Movement, With COVID-19 and people being indoors and no longer dressing for work in the same manner, I think that we are going leapfrog into more universal, human centered fashion design for people with disabilities.”
Listen to her interview on the Disability Visibility podcast here.
Watch Stephanie tell her story in her own words at TEDxYYC:
Grace Jun founded Open Style Lab in 2014 as a collaborative, interdisciplinary program to address the lack of adaptive clothing in the existing fashion marketplace.
Since 2015, Open Style Lab has hosted a summer fellowship on accessible design – most recently held at the Parsons School of Design – that matches clients with various disabilities to work with student teams, each consisting of an engineer, a designer, and an occupational therapist.
By inviting the clients into the classroom to work directly with the designers, they are active participants in the design and fabrication of the garment throughout the process. “Style is a form of self-expression, empowerment, and social link. We look at how this process can be for all, universal for all in the way we express ourselves through one of the world’s oldest and most intimate forms—clothing.”
Read about Open Style Lab’s 2019 showcase at Parsons School of Design where four teams showed a custom garment created for a client in a wheelchair.
Lauren “Lolo” Spencer
With over 10,000 followers on various social media platforms, Lauren “Lolo” Spencer —who has modeled for Tommy Hilfiger’s adaptive fashion line and recently made her acting debut in the film Give Me Liberty —centers her content around being a “disability lifestyle influencer.”
The videos on Lolo’s YouTube channel “Sitting Pretty” and the pictures on her Instagram account range from travel tips to relationship advice for people with disabilities, sharing her thoughts on how she navigates the world as a disabled woman.
“I do product reviews, life hacks, give dating and relationship advice. Also, just general life advice, because sometimes, as a person with a disability, it’s challenging dealing with society, because there’s all kinds of stereotypes and assumptions.”
Lolo’s posts are based on her own life and experience as a Black woman with ALS, who has been using a wheelchair to get around since she was 19. Her goal is to change the way people see those with disabilities: “I ain’t sad about my life. I have learned to embrace my disability and have fun and be positive about it.”