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It’s Time for Adaptive Fashion

Disabled people have long been ignored by the fashion industry, but it’s high time for reform, argued Sinéad Burke on the #BoFVOICES stage. Watch now.

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OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — “My money and my existence is as valid as yours,” said Sinéad Burke, a Dublin-based teacher, PhD student and fashion blogger who is 105 centimetres (or three foot five inches) tall. She has become an advocate for little people, who often face major challenges in many aspects of life — including fashion, where neither clothes nor retailers cater to their needs.

"I have spent my whole life trying to convince the world that I am intelligent, articulate, professional and an adult," continued Burke, who spoke both on the VOICES stage and on the sidelines of the event, hosted in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate. "And yet the fashion industry, unintentionally or not, does the exact opposite by what it offers."

Burke loves fashion because it allows her to reclaim her own narrative through personal expression. “It gives me a lens to view the world and the world a lens to view me.” And yet, her clothing options are severely limited. Burke also faces countless obstacles when shopping for clothes. For example, she finds it impossible to reach rails on the shop floor or see shelves of accessories. At the cashier desk, she is often unable to pay.

As a result, she works closely with a seamstress to make adjustments to clothes so they better suit her physique. “But there are two challenges: additional expense, and I don't get to relish in that immediate emotion of buying something in a store or online and you're thrilled and wear it immediately,” explained Burke.

“When I go shopping with my friends who are abled, they can go anywhere and I have to go somewhere else to find adaptive fashion,” continued Burke, referring to clothes that are unconventional in size and fit to accommodate people with physical disabilities. “In an attempt to be inclusive, we can actually be exclusive by saying that this section is for plus-size people, and this is adaptive for the disabled market, or this is for the elderly market. Why is not possible to just have a fashion industry that caters to the different spectrum of abilities that exists within society?”

Fifteen percent of the world’s population (1.2 billion people) have a physical or mental disability. Globally, disabled people’s combined spending power is $2.1 trillion, and reaches $6.9 trillion when families, parents and carers of disabled people are taken into account.

Why is not possible to just have a fashion industry that caters to the different spectrum of abilities that exists within society?

Burke says that the rise of the luxury kidswear market (currently worth $1.4 billion, according to Euromonitor) has made it easier for little people to find designer fashion that is similar to womenswear and menswear lines, offering a chance to buy premium clothes and accessories that reflect their personal sense of style.

She was dressed for VOICES by Burberry, which reconstructed a women's trench coat to fit her body, however Burke wasn't even aware that the service even existed. "It was an education for the brand and myself," said Burke. "They took a women's jacket and altered the sleeves and put a dart in the back. I now have a Burberry trench coat, which I never thought I would have."

Part of the problem is the lack of representation of disabled people in mainstream fashion media and imagery. When Jillian Mercado, a model who has spastic muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, caught the eye of Nicola Formichetti, she became the face of a campaign for Diesel and was subsequently signed to IMG. It was a seminal moment, and answered a wider call for more diversity in the fashion industry. Before her, Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullin became a muse to Alexander McQueen, appearing in a "Fashion-Able" issue of Dazed & Confused that McQueen edited and walking in his "Number 13" (Spring / Summer 1999) show with carved Grinling Gibbons-esque wooden prosthetic legs. But that was almost two decades ago and since then, disabled models have been largely excluded from mainstream fashion.

Jillian Mercado in a Diesel campaign, photographed by Inez & Vinoodh | Source: Courtesy

Mercado grew up wearing leg braces and found it difficult to find clothes that would fit over them. “My mother thought it was best to wear cargo pants which weren't as attractive as jeans but were the only thing available for me and my situation. This was about 15 to 20 years ago and still today there have not been any changes as far as including people who have disabilities in their design process.” Today, she is conscious of ensuring that her career is not based on tokenistic casting. “The reason things become tokenised is because a company or brand chooses to have the representation once,” she says. If they continue representing all types of people it wouldn't be a problem. They need to understand that people who have disabilities are one of the biggest minority groups and we also want to feel represented in something that we put on every day.”

There are, however, steps being made in the right direction. Mindy Scheier, a fashion designer and mother of a child with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, started Runway of Dreams Foundation in 2014, after finding it difficult to find clothes that her son, Oliver, could wear. Today, the foundation develops, delivers and supports charitable initiatives to broaden the reach of adaptive clothing and promote the differently-abled community in the fashion industry. “I did an entire year of research and spoke with hospitals and anyone that would speak to me,” says Scheier, who identified three main issues.

People who have disabilities are one of the biggest minority groups and we also want to feel represented in something that we put on every day.

The first was that closures were the most problematic area, with zippers and buttons difficult for many to navigate, and magnetic closures maintaining the look of a garment while being ergonomic. The second was adjustability for different body shapes, which could be helped by waistbands and internal hemming systems that allow for trousers legs to be adjustable to the shape of the body. The third was finding alternatives to the way that clothes are designed to be put on, namely over the head or buttoned at the front.

Scheier partnered with MagnaReady, which developed and patented magnetic closure technology to be used for every kind of garment as a result of founder Maura Horton's husband's difficulty with Parkinson's disease. The pair approached Tommy Hilfiger about creating an adaptive line, and the brand immediately embraced the concept for its kidswear line, and subsequently launched the same for adults.

Tommy Hilfiger's adaptive collection | Source: Courtesy

“The adaptive collection has given us the opportunity to impact directly the lives of millions of adults and cater to a community which had never been served before,” says Hilfiger, who worked with Scheier and Horton and holds focus groups for thought-leaders across the country. “The response we’ve seen from consumers and the community has been overwhelmingly positive. A mother recently wrote to us about her 5-year-old daughter who was able to wear her first pair of jeans because of the adaptions in this collection.”

The collection is typically Tommy Hilfiger in its red, blue and white colour palette and emphasis on denim, but it features magnetic shoulder, front and back closures to help pull clothes over the head; Velcro brand closures and magnetic flies for ease in wearing pants, jeans and chinos; adjusted leg openings and hems to accommodate leg braces and orthotics; magnetic zippers to enable individuals to zip and unzip with one hand; and pull-on pant loops inside of waist bands and fit around the wrist to pull on pants. "It is our vision to grow this business globally and may look over time to share the knowledge we've gained with other brand owners to help establish adaptive apparel as a full-fledged clothing category," Hilfiger added.

As Horton points out, adaptive clothing is not just exclusive to people with disability, but is also relevant to an ageing customer. “The ageing baby boomers — or the ‘silver tsunami,’ as I like to call it — are the most evergreen part of this market. People want to remain independent as long as possible.” MagnaReady has partnered with LF Americas, the US arm of Li & Fung Limited, which supplies apparel to major retail brands such as Target, Walmart, Dillards and Macy’s. Plans include expanded men’s woven shirt lines and kidswear to be distributed among some of the biggest retailers in the US.

I don't call what I do adaptive fashion. The focus is design for all, whether they are disabled or not.

Part of why so few designers address disability is that designing for it is not better engrained in fashion education at the world’s top art colleges, where Stockman fit mannequins are usually conventional shapes. Open Style Labs, a non-profit organisation dedicated to just that, has worked with Parsons since 2014, pairing fashion students with people with various disabilities, as well as engineers and occupational therapists, to innovate clothes that are tailored to specific needs while also addressing personal style and broader design aesthetic. The challenge, says executive director Grace Jun, is that adaptive fashion is difficult to scale for designers wanting to start their own label. “If we’re making it for one person with MS, there are only 500,000 [customers], so we look at common denominators. If you’re going to scale, you have look at the common factors. Similarities to someone with spinal cord injuries and someone with arthritis.”

Lucy Jones's designs for wheelchair users | Source: Courtesy

One designer emphasising the need for beautifully-made clothes for disabled people is Lucy Jones, a New York-based graduate of Parsons. In 2015, Jones won the coveted Womenswear Designer of the Year award at the Parsons Fashion benefit – presented to her by Marc Jacobs — for a collection designed for self-propelled, seated disabled people, a segment of society almost completely ignored by the fashion industry today. That same year, she was the winner of the Empowering Imagination competition sponsored by Parsons and Kering. Now, she is in the process of setting up FFORA, her own CFDA-supported label, focusing on accessories and product components for the mobility device market and launching in April next year.

"I don't call what I do adaptive fashion. The focus is design for all, whether they are disabled or not." Indeed, her designs could be worn by anyone who wants clothing that makes sitting down easier. She considers how kneecaps change shape when bent, leading her to remove extra fabric at the bend so pant legs can fall flat, and addresses how fat and muscle spreads in the bottom and thighs when seated, as well as eliminating uncomfortable fabric bunching at the crotch. For tops, she strengthens the elbow area, which is always leaning on armrests, and removes any excess bulk to made room for the more developed muscles that self-propelled people have in the shoulders and arms.

Echoing Sinéad Burke’s talk, Jones is not one for just addressing function to make medically-inspired clothes for people with disability. She cares just as much about form, and function. “Good design is being able to marry the two together, and function can enhance the form,” she says.

Addressing the VOICES audience, Burke offered some candid advice for how bigger brands can design for disability. “You’ve been doing it quite wrong. You think you know what disabled people need or want, instead of asking us. Make yourself vulnerable. Bring us to the table and ask us for our greatest insights because we live this experience every day. It will alter how we buy and wear your clothes, and it will bring employment opportunities that you can barely think of at the moment. Why should you do it? It’s 2017 and it is God damn time.”

To learn more about VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, visit our VOICES website and click here to request an invitation to attend.

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