Cue the lights, hit the music, and get ready to strut your stuff. It is one of the last shows of LA Fashion Week and the models are lined up ready do their little turn on the catwalk. The entourage is not your typical set of super models. These models all have disabilities, and they are wearing the latest styles from Bezgraniz Couture, a Russian company whose new collections of functional modern clothes and accessories include more elbow room, extra zippers and alternative tailoring to address the needs of people with disabilities.
Fashion is a $1.2 trillion global industry, with more than $250 billion spent annually on fashion in the United States, but to date very little of that money has focused on the needs of people with disabilities. While several small companies have attempted to address those needs, few have been successful, and mainstream designs aimed at consumers with disabilities are few and far between.
But if the scene on the Los Angeles runway, along with some other positive developments are any sign, the major players in the fashion industry may finally be stepping up to give the world’s most underserved populations some new and exciting fashion options.
Adaptive Fashion to the Forefront
Fashion-leader Tommy Hilfiger took a step toward giving people those choices last year when it launched a new adaptive children’s collection in collaboration with the adaptive fashion-focused organization, Runway of Dreams. In doing so, Hilfiger became the first American designer fashion brand to launch an adaptive children’s line, but the founder of Runway of Dreams, Mindy Scheier, does not want to stop there. The Runway of Dreams collection has the same designs as its traditional pieces but includes modified closures, adjustability, and alternate options to get in and out of the garments.
Those are the three major requirements that Scheier fights for in adaptive fashion. She founded Runway when she was unable to find a fashionable pair of jeans for her son, who uses leg braces as a result of muscular dystrophy. A former fashion designer, she spent the night switching out a button and zipper fly for magnets and adding wide openings on the bottom of pant legs, then sealed them with magnetic closures. This not only made the jeans easy to pull on and fit over her son’s leg braces, it also caused Scheier to question why modifications like this weren’t readily available for consumers with disabilities.
Armed with a new mission, Scheier set out to bring adaptive fashion into the big leagues. When she pitched her idea and presented her off-the-rack adaptations to Tommy Hilfiger, the fashion giant was almost immediately onboard. Hilfiger’s enthusiasm was more than a token gesture and has proven to be profitable. “The impact has been fantastic,” says Gary Sheinbaum, CEO of Tommy Hilfiger Americas, on the Hilfiger website. “We’ve had customers purchase from almost all 50 states and in the first quarter two of our top six selling styles on tommy.com were from this collection. In fact, 20 percent of our kids’ business was driven by this special capsule.”
Tommy Hilfiger’s collaboration with Runway of Dreams may have brought adaptive fashion into the forefront, but their design relied heavily on an already established successful adaptive line of dress shirts for adults, called MagnaReady. Maura Horton, of Raleigh, North Carolina, designed what would become the MagnaReady shirt as a response to her husband’s battle with Parkinson’s. “In my husband’s case, he was always taken aback by the amount of energy and time it took him to get ready because the Parkinson’s disease had affected his dexterity and range of motion. I remember vividly when he said to me that he had to start off each day with an obstacle and that can set the tone for the whole day.”
Horton’s solution incorporates custom-designed, machine-washable magnets behind the non-functional button flap of traditional button-up shirts. The adaptations made the shirt easy to put on and take off independently, but the style was indiscernible from other traditional designs. “The system not only helped him feel independent and accomplished, but it also helped him save time and energy for other battles he might fight in the day,” says Horton.
Horton sold about 20,000 shirts through her online store from 2013-2015. Last year she partnered with PVH, a global apparel company that owns Tommy Hilfiger, IZOD and Calvin Klein. Together they developed a collection of Van Heusen men’s dress shirts using the MagnaClick adaptive technology. Last fall the shirts were rolled out to select retailers, including Belk, JCPenney and Kohl’s, both in stores and online, as well as on Amazon.com.
Although this is not the first time major retailers have carried adaptive clothing, it is certainly the biggest collaboration to date. And, if the current trend takes hold, it won’t be the last. Movements to create accessible, inclusive designs are happening worldwide.
From Russia, With Vision
Tobias Reisner and Yanina Urusova, the founders of Bezgraniz Couture believe the fashion market for people with disabilities is just beginning to emerge. They know that niche markets can be profitable, but argue the key to making them profitable is changing the perception of them. “Society creates disability via inaccessibility and stereotypical attitudes,” says Urusova. “Fashion and clothes are one of the most effective solutions to change the mind, and how they are presented is the key to create that change.”
Since 2008, Bezgraniz Couture — the name means “without borders” in Russian — has used art, innovative workshops, educational forums and fashion shows to broaden societies’ perception of beauty and break through the barriers that negatively impact people with disabilities. Bezgraniz Couture started by holding contests to get designers designing clothes for people with disabilities, and to figure out how such clothing could be scaled on an industrial level.
In March 2014, on the heels of the Paralympics in Sochi, Bezgraniz Couture developed the first fashion collection dedicated to adaptive clothing ever to show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia. They have continued to develop and show fashion for people with disabilities since, most recently in Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, Reisner and Urusova believe that unless the current ideations of disability and beauty evolve, the clothing market will continue to ignore the needs of people with disabilities. With that in mind, they have also embraced out of the box approaches to get people thinking, like their 2014 project Acropolis, where they restaged classic Greek sculpture using models with disabilities. “It allows society to engage in open intellectual conversation about the body and disability in the modern world and challenge its own views and how we define the ‘norm,’” says Urusova.
She stresses the importance of individual differences. “We need to learn to accept other bodies as art pieces for their unique structure and personal beauty. Lack of communication creates a roadblock to an effective marketing campaign. We need to open the market and create a viable business model by measuring bodies and creating designs that meet the needs of both fashion and individual physique.”
To move in that direction, Bezgraniz Couture is working with design schools in London, Russia and the United States to make adaptive design part of the core curriculum. Elsewhere, Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched Open Style Lab in 2014 to teach adaptive fashion [see Inclusive Fashion 101], and Lucy Jones, a 24-year-old fashion designer from Cardiff, United Kingdom, made Forbes’ list of 30 Under 30 for 2016 for her innovative “seated designs” for people in wheelchairs. And Christiano Krosh, a designer in Brazil, has a new line that caters to the needs of disabled consumers. Krosh uses Velcro, zippers, hidden openings and even Braille labels to create designs that are fashionable and functional.
New fabrics, innovative technology and increased global awareness have created an opportunity to move adaptive fashion onto the runways and into established retail stores. All it takes is education, awareness, and someone to lead the charge. Urusova believes working together will make the difference. “There are wonderful pockets of practices worldwide, but no one is connecting them and bringing them together to create one movement. When that happens, there will truly be an inclusive new ‘norm’ in fashion.
The Slow Road to Inclusion
There have been several small companies that have attempted to address the fashion needs of people with disabilities, but their success has been sporadic at best. In a sign of the difficulties facing adaptive designers, designer Izzy Camilleri decided to shutter her pioneering adaptive line IZ Collection last fall. Camilleri, who gained fame dressing celebrities like Angelina Jolie and David Bowie, launched IZ seven years ago after a local TV personality who used a wheelchair requested a custom garment.
She grew the line to feature a wide range of functional, fashionable options for men and women. She regretted having to close but said the sales weren’t high enough. “It’s not a decision that came quickly or overnight,” Camilleri told the Toronto Star. “The growth has been quite slow, and it’s difficult to sustain a slow growth. We produce locally and ethically, and it’s hard for us to juggle pricing.”
Designer Stephanie Alves started crafting adaptive fashion solutions in 2011 and went all in with the 2013 launch of ABL Denim, a line of adaptive jeans. Alves and ABL Denim took a huge step forward for the industry when she partnered with Walmart to sell her adaptive jeans on the web. The jeans are still available on the ABL Denim website but most sizes on the Walmart site are out of stock, suggesting that the jump to the mainstream may need more heavy hitters to pick up the cause.
Wendy Crawford, a C5-6 quad, founder of mobileWOMEN.org and co-founder of The Raw Beauty Project, thinks getting designers to consider people with disabilities as a viable market is difficult for a few reasons. “There is a lack of education regarding the clothing needs of people with disabilities. How is a designer to know if they haven’t encountered a disabled person in their own personal lives?”
That’s probably why so many adaptive fashion solutions start in the minds of people with disabilities.
Heidi McKenzie got her start designing adaptive fashion after a 2007 car accident left her a T4 paraplegic. Instead of settling for clothes that didn’t fit the bill, McKenzie designed her own line of jeans, Alter Ur Ego, that is both functional and fashionable. “Finding the right pants is so hard for someone in a wheelchair,” she says. “Bending over and sharing your bum with the world is just one issue. There’s length, if it cuts into your hips, risk of pressure sores if pants have back pockets with rivets, and on top of all that, finding the right fit.
Look Good, Feel Good
The right fit is not only important when it comes to looking good; it also helps people feel good. Studies show that feeling comfortable in certain clothing or fashion pieces can significantly boost confidence and self-esteem. McKenzie believes wearing clothes that are both functional and fashionable can break down social barriers. “If you come into a room well-dressed, people will react to you differently. You are more approachable,” says McKenzie. “Something as simple as someone complimenting an article of clothing you are wearing can spark a conversation, and it didn’t start with ‘Why are you in a wheelchair?’ Being asked that question over and over gets to be aggravating.”
Like McKenzie, Dr. Sheri Prentis, founder of Be Sassy & LIVE, also found her way into fashion through disability. She knows that what works for the disability market can, at times, diminish an individual’s sense of style. Prentis has clinically disabling lymphedema (persistent swelling) of her right arm, hand and fingers due to her rigorous treatment for breast cancer. She has to wear a compression glove and sleeve daily in order to control the swelling.
Faced with a selection of unattractive and uncomfortable gloves, Prentis designed her own line of compression garments that are stylish, comfortable and more affordable. “Fashion is an integral part of everyday life and a form of expression of our personalities, our ideals and our attitudes,” she says. “Fashion has the ability to transform an individual, to lift one’s spirits, and to open opportunities.”
Stephanie Thomas was born with congenital disabilities on her right hand and feet. She designed Cur8able, a fashion and lifestyle website, to empower people with disabilities by helping them create styles that allow them to dress independently in a stylish and dignified manner while also bringing adaptive fashion into the public’s view. A fashion stylist with a graduate degree in fashion journalism, Thomas has seen various trends come and go, but only a few that address the needs of people with disabilities. She has often experienced the frustration of shopping for accessible shoes and clothing. “Having the ability to make choices about how you want to present yourself to the world is powerful, but something most people take for granted,” she says.
But if Mindy Scheier has her way, the fashion world may be perched on the brink of truly inclusive designs. “Why has no one done this before?” she asks in a Runway of Dreams video. “We have never been more ready. Adaptive clothing will be in the mainstream. I won’t stop until it happens.”
• Bezgraniz Couture, bezgranizcouture.com
• Cur8able, www.cur8able.com
• MagnaReady, 866/635-8866; www.magnaready.com/shop
• The Raw Beauty Project, www.rawbeautynyc.com
• Runway of Dreams, www.runwayofdreams.org
• Tommy Hilfiger adaptive clothing, usa.tommy.com/shop/en/thb2cus/runway-of-dreams
• Alter UR Ego, alterurego.co
• ABL Denim, http://abldenim.com/