Although fashion is one of the most self-consciously image-driven industries, designers have often paid little attention to catering to people with disabilities. Thankfully in recent times there has been an emergence of mainstream brands and retailers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Target producing accessible collections which offer both style and ease of fit
The growing industry of adaptive clothing, in which garments are designed to accommodate the wearer's physical condition by adjusting their shape or size and enhancing functionality, is expected to reach $52 billion in value this year in the US and is projected to grow even more.
Though mainstream brands are beginning to address the needs of disabled customers, smaller independent designers took on this challenge long before it became trendy.
Vongi Noreen Ruzive, a British designer with an inclusive label (Von Ruz) due to her experience growing up with two brothers on the autism spectrum, made magnetic zippers, wrap around features and snaps one of this season's major trends.
“Such features not only serve as a functional purpose for those with disabilities but can also serve as a styling element for those without disabilities,” says Ruzive. “For example, my fully detachable blazer design makes it easier for an individual to wear with a prosthetic arm, [while] a non-disabled woman may like to wear the same blazer with sleeves halfway zipped to create a slit.”
Ruzive believes that there is still much progress to be made when it comes to making products more accessible. Although many brands showcase models with disabilities in their advertising campaigns, these companies may not have enough of a supply chain dedicated solely to manufacturing products for people with special needs.
“I think it may take some time for, particularly mainstream brands, to undergo their research and begin implementing within their businesses,” she adds.
She has focused her efforts on the United Kingdom and France, but hopes to expand into other international markets in order offer her designs to people around the world.
When Sema Gedik saw her cousin struggle to find fashionable clothing as a person with dwarfism, she was inspired to create Auf Augenhoehe— German for “seeing eye-to-eye”—a brand whose principle is equality.
Gedik hopes that clothing made specifically for those with dwarfism will become more common.“Before we entered the market, our customers had to [figure] in severe alterations of their clothes from conventional brands,” Gedik shares.
In order to ensure that her clothing would fit most customers, she spent hours researching and talking with members of the community about how best to make it.
“Historically, the fashion industry has always drawn boundaries, whether between genders, body proportions, beauty ideals, or status,” says Gedik. “However, many of these divisions are no longer relevant in our globalized world and boundaries should be broken.”
Kintsugi, an adaptive clothing line, takes its name from the Japanese tradition of repairing broken pottery with gold. “The ethos behind it demonstrates that our perceived ‘flaws' or ‘imperfections' are actually what make us unique,” says founder Emma McClelland. “No matter what happens in life, we are never truly ‘broken.'”
After watching a TED talk about the lack of options for disabled consumers in the fashion industry, she came up with the idea to build her brand. While there were a couple of companies making adaptive clothing, many were more concerned with functionality and did not take aesthetics or style into concern.
Kistingi began its collection in 2018, after spending much of that year researching and understanding the concerns of disabled people.
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“You don't have to make huge changes to make clothing more inclusive. It's just small tweaks here and there that can make a world of difference,” says McClelland. Many of her designs feature clever solutions for addressing everyday problems, such as troublesome buttons. In addition to clothing basics like tops and pants, she also includes special features that make it easier for people who have medical devices—such as ostomy bags—to dress themselves.
In the coming years, they plans to launch a line of menswear, but hopes that gaining support from outside retailers will allow her business more opportunity.
“I hope they will realize soon that there is a consumer need for inclusive fashion,” she says. “And it's not just the right thing to do, it's the right thing for business as well.”
IZ Adaptive is a Canadian clothing brand that makes fashion more accessible to people with physical impairments. The label was launched in 2009 by Isabel Camilleri, who wanted to create inclusive garments for the disabled community.
The designer had created several custom pieces for a wheelchair-using client and realized that such clothing provided an underserved niche in the fashion market.
“The most inspiring moments come from our customers,” Camilleri says. “When they share their experiences with the brand and how it makes them feel, this is what helps me continue to do the work I do.”
Note: They carry non-gender clothing as well!
When Kenyan designer Angela Wanjiku created Hisi Studio as her senior project in college, she had no idea that it would become more than a class exercise. But after seeing the positive feedback from sight-impaired users and their families—especially when they saw how these products helped them live independently—Wanjiku began to see real potential for the label.
Wanjiku believes that the key to making a truly adaptive clothing line lies in co-creating and designing pieces with members of the community you are serving.“This also applies to other groups where the designer is an outsider,” Wanjiku says. “One cannot truly design inclusively without the contribution of their target users.”
Hisi Studio aims to make its clothing accessible through the integration of braille and QR codes.