Sometimes life makes you face problems you would never think about, and that is when you start to care. That is what happened to me last year when my uncle was diagnosed with cancer. Over time he was no longer able to dress himself and many types of clothing were bothering him. I started wondering how it was possible for someone to become so sensitive that they would even refuse a simple pair of cotton socks. One problem he shared was the uncomfortability of the rubber band. When my aunt went to find a more comfortable option immediately, there were none that met his needs.
A few days after his death life, I was facing unsolved issue. It was fate, someone say, that I met an old friend – A. – whom I haven’t spoken to for years. While catching up, she mentioned that she was graduating with a thesis in fashion business. She created a protype clothing line for disabled people and those with chronic diseases. She came up with this idea while helping her brother who suffered from a terrible car accident that forced him to spend months in a hospital. While I was interviewing her, she said: “When you spend months in a hospital, your psychological situation starts deteriorating even without realizing it. I saw it on my brother: he had to be helped in everything, every day with the same colorless shirt. His personality started to disappear.” She was right, because whether you are aware of it or not, clothes have power. Everyone has their favorite pair of jeans or a dress that make them feel unstoppable and strong – even those who say they do not care about fashion. Therefore, clothes shape our personality, the way we approach and live in the world. A. continued: “When we – not without efforts – made my brother wear his favorite clothes, he finally stood up after months of using a wheelchair. We couldn’t believe that”. It was at that point that she realized how important clothing is for people. She thought, “What if it was me?” That is why she created this brand prototype of adaptive clothing, but “a cool one” she said to me, smiling. “People don’t have to feel as though they never left the hospital, especially if they have to live forever with a chronic disease, a missing limb, or a wheelchair. People don’t have to struggle or feel ugly because of their situation.”
F. is a friend I met at university and she immediately became a great example of strength against adversity. She had cerebral palsy and encounters difficulties with muscular coordination, so she is a part-time wheelchair user. During our interview we talked about her feelings towards clothing: “When I was a teenager, I hated going shopping, especially when I couldn’t find trousers large enough to fit my ankle-foot orthosis or the right shoes. I felt very frustrated because I couldn’t wear stylish clothes.” As explained, clothes are important to self-esteem. Clothing is able to make us feel part of something, especially when we are teenagers. F. continued very calmly, despite the sensitive topic. “I felt angry because I wasn’t able to relate to my peers in terms of following the latest trends and, for this reason, I’ve never felt comfortable going shopping with my friends. I felt out of place. I was aware that I couldn’t wear anything else, but I really wished there were more options for me to choose from. […] I know I could never wear long dresses, because otherwise, I would trip. Every time I look at one of these dresses, I feel very conscious about my limits and, consequently, less feminine.” Less feminine…wow. With this interesting but disappointing insight I asked her: “What do you think about fashion now?” She replied smiling, “Over the years, my opinion on fashion has changed. When I was a teenager, I struggled with accepting the fact that I couldn’t wear what everyone else was wearing. Now, in my 20s, I’m more aware of my limits and I dress accordingly […] I care more about being comfortable with myself.” But, recalling my conversation with A., I asked F.: “What if brands start to develop clothing lines suitable for you?” “I’d be thrilled!,” she said laughing, “I appreciate that fashion houses are acknowledging the existence of people with disabilities and their struggles with clothes. I’d appreciate it even more if these fashion lines were accessible to all!”.
F. has plenty of ideas and suggestions – if only brands would listen. But who would listen to normal people, right? Except for the fact that disabilities affect everyone, even the élite in society. In the Vogue article “This Artist and Model Is Changing the Conversation Around Disability and Fashion,” model Emily Barker shares her story. She suffers from an extremely painful chronic disease, but she does not let get her down. Emily’s Instagram is full of selfies in a wheelchair as she wants to challenge the fashion industry’s treatment of disabled people.
In the article she says: “Honestly, it’s really hard to find brands or organizations that are willing to listen […] I don’t wear skinny short pants because I am not comfortable with my CRPS, and I can’t wear certain cuts of clothes as they get caught in my wheelchair tires, and [when designers and stylists hear this,] they’re just like, ‘Oh, this is too much.’” This incredible girl is fighting for a fashion industry culture in which disabled people – both models and consumers alike – are treated with respect. She continues: “It’s just asking fashion if they really want to ignore 61 million people.” The model is obviously talking about 26% of the American population but imagine the worldwide percentage. Unbelievable.
Despite all the adversities disabled people encounter every day, they still exhibit great strength. For example, in the article from Healthline, “People with Disabilities Get Creative to Make Clothes Work for Them,” some customers affirm that the few brands that are developing adaptive clothing lines either do not fit their bodies or their budgets. However, in response, people with disabilities become the fashion designers themselves. No school is needed, just experience and willingness. Luckily, many clothing stores have begun creating a larger variety of clothing lines.
ASOS, for example, has recently revealed a music festival–ready jumpsuit that can be worn by both people who use wheelchairs and those who don’t. The Vogue Business article, “The $400 billion adaptive clothing opportunity,” makes the opportunity brands could have in developing adaptive clothing lines clear – not only to improve society but their own businesses. In the article, according to Coherent Market Insights, the global market for adaptive clothing is expected to increase to $400 billion by 2026. The article also raises awareness that brands do not need a totally different product development, but rather they need to consider a medical input in order to know their target market. For instance, have you heard of Mindy Scheier and her story? I casually bumped into her Ted Talk and could not help crying. In her speech, “How adaptive clothing empower people with disabilities,” the fashion designer talks about her son, Oliver, who suffers from a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Oliver, who can only wear were sweatpants, wanted to wear jeans to school like his friends, and so Mindy made a pair he could finally wear in one night. At that point she understood she could change something in both her son and all disabled people’s lives.
She founded The Runway of Dreams Foundation in 2014, a non-profit organization that believes that clothing is a basic human need and it is working to ensure that adaptive apparel will become as normal as petite or plus sizes. In an interview with People Magazine, “Clothes for Kids with Special Needs,” Mindy shares that, in January 2015, she met with the Global Brands Group. This group later introduced her to Tommy Hilfiger’s team, which she successfully persuaded to produce adaptable versions of clothing pieces. In the interview she states: “My dream is to have a mandate that a certain percentage of clothing has to be adaptive.” As if today, Tommy Hilfiger is the only major brand that has made a complete adaptive line in the USA. Other companies are developing trendy adaptive clothes, such as Stephanie Thomas, who is going to launch her project next spring. Things are slowly changing for the better as brands are becoming more sensitive and disabled people can finally feel as trendy and beautiful as anyone else. Are these enough reasons why brands should develop adaptive clothing lines?