Shirt, shoes — and wait — leg bag required? Sure, as wheelchair users we may have a couple extra accessories tagging along and a couple more obstacles to figure out, but that doesn’t automatically make fashionable clothing on wheels unattainable.
Here’s my side of things. I rock a bit of a quad belly, pee out of my belly button, and confidently own my 20-ish degrees of spinal curvature. Gimpy hands make buttons a chore and manual pushing has taught me to beware of white pants. If any of that sounds familiar or is relatable, then trust me, you can find clothing out there that fits your needs and looks up-to-date.
Fashion is a big part of my world. Choosing what I’m wearing starts my day on the right note. I’m constantly running through my typical checklist: weather, the temperature at work (always cold), how I’m feeling (bloated, sassy, sexy), do I need to have shaved legs to wear it. Adding onto those routine considerations is the effect that my clothing has on my body and my day — think pressure sores, getting soiled, what I can put on and off myself, what kind of terrain I’ll be pushing through.
Putting some of these dilemmas to rest starts with a solid foundation — having the options and the know-how on putting them together. Using a wheelchair doesn’t mean you need to wear baggy, fashion-less clothes. You just need to know where to find better options and how to make them work for you.
You can shop for clothes that have been designed especially for wheelchair users, universally designed clothes designed with a wider range of needs in mind, or simply buy right off the rack and wear it or tailor it to your desire. Mix, match, do whatever, but always remember it’s about you.
I dug into the adaptive clothing scene with a raised eyebrow or two. My only true piece of wheelchair-adapted fashion is a poncho-like cape from Adaptations by Adrian for those rainy days. It works well and I wholeheartedly recommend it, but I wish I could get the same coverage from a high-end rainslicker.
So what’s the state of the adapted fashion union? Companies are getting creative and getting out there: mastering high-backed pants, full-length or thigh side zippers, cropped-back jackets, no rivets or hard seaming, hook-and-bar clasps instead of buttons — the list goes on. They’re even doing custom add-ons to make the piece perfect for you.
Now more than ever, designers are getting in tune with their clientele’s needs, researching what works for people with disabilities, and taking that into consideration when designing and choosing fabrics to hold up to unprecedented washing, pulling and tugging.
Take designer Izzy Camilleri’s IZ line (formerly IZ Adaptive), for example. A Canadian journalist and wheelchair user was referred to Camilleri — a designer who has dressed some pretty big names — for custom work. Camilleri had never created anything adaptive, but that eye-opening experience blossomed into a full-fledged line.
“It all stems from what that journalist taught me. At the time, I didn’t know of the challenges, everything from organ settling to pressure sores. When you see someone in a chair who’s dressed, you don’t always know what it took to get them dressed or the compromises they may have made,” says Camilleri.
That perspective helped propel her into designing for chair users, making on-trend fashions that don’t necessarily look adapted. Through her new work she has met more people with disabilities and found new inspiration for designs, like a trench coat and another outerwear piece that unzips from the back, making it easier for someone to help a high-level quad put on or off. Leg bags can be concealed and cleverly positioned zippers also allow for easy dressing and easy access. Camilleri reflects, “I always say the clothes are secondary to what they deliver. They offer a sense of self, personality, dignity. They’re more than just an article of clothing.”
While Camilleri mainly sells her wares online, designer Stephanie Alves is helping bring accessible fashions to a retailer near you. Thanks to her perseverance, she got her ABL Denim line sold through Walmart.com. Getting into a mainstream retailer wasn’t easy, but Alves hopes other retailers will get on board with the disability community and understand that this is just another category worth exploring. “Knowing that pants are the hardest, that’s where I decided to focus my business. I started asking people with MS or SCI about what their challenges were, how they need to be transferred,” Alves remarked.
She understands that there can’t be any rubbing, styles need to ride higher in the back, and fabrics must be forgiving on the skin. One of her jean designs uses a softly finished yet more rigid denim, but uses a sweatshirt denim on the seat. In her words, “Jeans have to replicate the comfort of yoga pants as best as possible. They’re so easy to dress in — you just throw on a top and go.”
One tip when considering purchasing adaptive clothing — get your measurements. Many of the online sites for these fashions give great rundowns of how their designs fit, especially since they’re already taking proportion and fit into consideration. You don’t necessarily need to go a size up for the ease of dressing, as many of them have accounted for enough room in a fitted garment.
You might want to call some of these universally designed clothing lines adapted, but they are intended to be worn by a lot of different groups. This may just be the sweet spot for clothing companies — being able to cater towards a bigger market while still giving people with disabilities more options.
Jan Erickson founded Janska, a universally designed line mainly made out of softer fleece materials, after her friend Jean had several strokes and found dressing to be a challenge. After attending her first trade show, Erickson was approached by boutiques to carry her clothing. Realizing that there was a marketable audience for her designs was her wow moment. Erickson and her team then did a blend of pieces, some more fitted and others that had just enough extra room in the shoulder.
“I wanted something to be really comfortable, stylish and easy to care for,” says Erickson. “The other thing that’s really important is the recognition of how important clothing is to each one of us. There’s an importance around how we get ready for the day — what does it look like when we get ready for the day and do we feel good about how we’re looking and go out in confidence versus when we didn’t get it right.”
Ag Apparel is another interesting label to watch. I’ve crossed paths with Jordan Silver, its founder and designer, who has a fresh take on universal design and the foundation pieces of your wardrobe. Her late aunt had ALS and dressing took up to an hour and a half. Jordan wanted to shorten that amount of time without sacrificing style.
Silver looks at a garment, deconstructs it and then recreates a similar form that is easy-to-wear for all types of wearers. Plus, she’ll make her fashions work for you with custom tailoring and made-to-measure men’s and women’s pieces. “I want everyone to have the option of choosing what to wear,” says Silver. “If it’s not for fashion, it’s for function — like dual zippers on pants. I see how many fashion needs I can solve in one pair of pants.”
Like Alves, Silver wants more clothing out there in mass retail that people with disabilities can use: “Whether you’re shopping at Walmart or Neiman Marcus, you want to be able to go there and get what you need.”
Off the Racks
I’d like to think this is my area of expertise — shopping in store or online and then making those styles work for me. Living near a shopping mall mecca has given me plenty of practice in navigating a clothing rack without trying it on. I look for silhouettes, materials and colors that fit my style and mobility while allowing for easy cath access (sorry, jumpsuits). However, just because an item isn’t perfect, doesn’t mean it lands on the “no” pile — more on that later.
My best advice is to take the time and energy (yours and your caregiver’s if needed) to find your best size in a brand, or brands, that fit your fashion personality and life. This may take buying a few sizes and arduously trying them on and off at home. For some of us, that may be too much — I totally get it. But for me, it was worth the trial and error. I know how J.Crew’s toothpick jeans run and know the size that fits me perfectly with no rubbing, no falling down and no excess material at my ankles.
The same goes if you are buying online. Many places have free shipping or will exchange for the right size. They want to make it work for you. Plus, you can try it on in the comforts of home and with an extra hand if needed. Like I mentioned earlier, take note of each company’s size charts before checking out since your size at one retailer may differ at another.
Regarding the “no” pile, don’t just reject clothes that fit but might not have the bells and whistles you need. Do-it-yourself is a way to love your designer coat and make it work with your hand function. You can start small, like removing a button from your jacket or pants and replacing it with Velcro. Go a little further with hook and loop closures, zippers on the thigh, etc.
For those more adventurous DIYers, you can start from scratch with material and exact measurements. There are helpful pattern and sewing tutorials to guide you, a friend or family member or perhaps a trusted sewing guru in making your own. It’s the Pinterest age, people, everybody is getting in on making things from start to finish and modified clothing can be one of them.
A word to the wise: make sure any DIY work you do is tested by someone who can feel every part of the garment. For example, have them try on or at least put their arm throughout a pant leg and on the seat of the trousers to make sure nothing will rub, poke, or irritate your skin. Dysreflexia or discomfort is the last thing you need when trying to look good.
Go Forth Enabled Shopper
Whichever route you choose to follow, there is some general wheelchair fashion-sense you should keep in mind. First off, know the material and care instructions. Satin and wheels don’t always coexist. I know that a light-colored dry clean-only blouse will rack up quite an expense since it’ll only get one wearing at a time. If you do a lot of tugging and pulling to get something on, then you might want to spend a little more on that article of clothing to make sure it can hold up to your harder use. Fabrics with a little stretch are almost always good, as is a good tailor who can make the final adjustments and fix problems that may pop up.
Most importantly, be honest with yourself. If you love the button-up, but it’s too tight on your hard-to-tone tummy or only fits if it’s really baggy, then don’t buy it. My mom and I have gone on many shopping trips together, and if it’s a major struggle to get a dress on and off, then it’s not worth purchasing. That’s why I have to find a dress that fits over my broad shoulders and fits my petite frame. It’s out there — my collection doesn’t lie!
As Camilleri put it, “Clothing is sometimes the first impression. It’s what you’re wearing and what you’re about.” No one may know you rigged up a Velcro access point in your pants to self-cath, purchased a magnetic closure shirt to accommodate your hand function, or even tried on 15 jackets with a friend just to find the right one.
What they will see: a great pair of chinos, a cool denim shirt and a modern coat. I bet they even have one in their closet, too. Your great sense of style and personal vibe set the tone, so don’t put them on the backburner or say “I wish I had …” because it might just be out there, waiting to be had. Own your style and make it yours.
I’d love to see and hear about your wheelchair style and any other fashions or designers that you’d like to put out there. Maybe you even have a cool DIY design. Use #wheelchairstyle and keep the fashion chatter going.
Take the Guesswork out of Adaptive and Universal Clothing:
• ABL Denim: Men and women’s adaptive jeans and shorts; 310/871-8145, abldenim.com
• Able to Wear: Scottish-based men and women’s adaptive clothing; 0141/775-3738, www.able2wear.co.uk
• Adaptations by Adrian: Men and women’s adaptive capes, shorts and pants; 760/744-3565, www.adaptationsbyadrian.com
• Ag Apparel: Women’s universal and men and women’s made-to-measure apparel; 305/619-7913, www.agapparel.com
• IZ: Men and women’s adaptive, contemporary designer apparel; 416/860-0783, www.izadaptive.com
• Janska: Women’s universal outerwear, wraps and sweaters; 866/452-6752, janska.com
• Koolway Sports: Men and women’s adaptive coats, capes and boots; 905/492-3188, koolwaysports.com
• Legawear: Men and women’s made-to-measure adaptive suiting and pants; www.legawear.com
• MagnaReady: Men and women’s universal magnetic-closure dress shirts; 866/635-8866, www.magnaready.com
• Rolli-Moden (high ship costs to US though): International adaptive men and women’s adaptive apparel; 0049/6271-80777-203, rollimoden.de/index.php?language=en&=&=
• Rollin’ Wear: Men’s adaptive jeans and graphic tees; www.rollinwear.com
• Spashionista: spashionista.com
• Wheelchair Solutions: Unisex waterproof adaptive outerwear; 800/839-6577, wheelchair-solutions.com
Top 4 Fashion Myths
Adaptive clothes aren’t fashionable.
Yes, there are many adapted lines out there that don’t have an ounce of style. I believe this wholeheartedly. However, my skeptic side was surprised by the likes of IZ and ABL Denim. They carry clothes that my 20-something self would wear. And I have a high style standard.
I can’t get dressed up. I only can live in soft, comfortable loungewear.
Fabrics today have changed the fashion world. And the athletic-inspired trends are finding their way into daytime clothing and even workwear — there’s now stretch in everything from jeans to jackets. Believe me, you can still protect your skin while looking put-together.
I can’t dress myself, so I want what’s easiest for someone to help me put on and off.
Yes, making it easy is a must, but don’t let that word pigeonhole you into wearing items that automatically put their on-and-off capabilities or size before fashion. You can have both in one garment. “People have been telling me their attendants are reaching for my adapted clothing. Fashion and function — it’s a win-win!” says Izzy Camilleri, designer and founder of IZ.
I can’t wear what she/he is wearing.
You might not be able to wear exactly what someone else has on, but you can find a way to make something equivalent work. And if you don’t see it out there, ask someone to make it. So many designers jump at the opportunity and welcome the idea.
Imagine the jubilation of watching almost 500 people contribute over $28,000 to make your dream of running an adaptable clothing line come true. Now imagine having to actually make the clothes and get your business off the ground in the timely manner you promised all your backers. That’s the situation facing Heidi McKenzie after she wrapped up a successful Kickstarter campaign in August to launch her Alter UR Ego clothing line.
“If I said I wasn’t overwhelmed, I would be lying,” she says. “But it’s an amazing feeling when that many people believe in what you’re doing. After working on it so long and not knowing how it was going to turn out, I’m overwhelmed with happiness about being able to help someone else and make a difference in their lives, even if it just a pair of jeans. I’m exhausted, but it is so gratifying.”
McKenzie, a T4 paraplegic since 2007, got the idea while competing in the 2012 Ms. Wheelchair America competition as Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky. “That was the first time I had been in a room with 20 other girls in wheelchairs, and I realized we all shared a desire for comfortable, fashionable clothing that we could wear.”
With a background in fashion merchandising, McKenzie found time to plan her clothes and connect with people in the industry even though she was working full time. Her Kickstarter campaign started in July and ended August 29 with 465 supporters having contributed $28,627. Initially she is only making adapted jeans, but she hopes to expand to design jackets, dresses, slacks and more. Her jeans feature numerous adaptations to help wheelchair users look fabulous and be functional, including pockets on the sides, an opening for a catheter, a “tummy control” panel and more.
McKenzie says the response from people who have tried her pants has been ecstatic. “They love them. It’s almost like they are shocked because people in wheelchairs always adapt to things, and then when something is made for us, we don’t know what to say.”
For those who missed out on the Kickstarter, McKenzie is planning to let customers pre-order the same design through her website: www.alterurego.co.