Why top brands should rethink adaptive fashion and take it seriously

Far from simply being a narrow niche concern, the adaptive fashion market is projected to be worth an estimated $400 billion by 2026.

Adaptive fashion refers to clothing and apparel suitable for people with physical or sensory disabilities who may have difficulty getting dressed or experience severe discomfort and discomfort while wearing standard clothing.

Typical modifications to ensure clothing can meet the needs of disabled consumers can include magnetic and Velcro closures instead of buttons and drawstrings for those with dexterity impairments, concealed zippers for access to external tubing, and fabrics for pressure control. temperature.

While there are several specialist adaptive clothing manufacturers such as Belgium-based So Yes, British brand I Am Denim, and Chicago-based Social Surge, major fashion houses and brands have been slower.

While the forays of the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Nike into the adaptive clothing market are welcome, the latter in the form of its Go FlyEase trainer that allows for hands-free fitting, their presence is the exception, not the rule.

When it comes to assistive goods and equipment, of course, there will always be room for specialist suppliers, particularly when it comes to more complex medical needs.

However, the lack of mainstreaming for adaptive clothing comes with multiple disadvantages for shoppers with disabilities.

To begin with, the scarcity of consumer choice and competition inevitably drive up prices and make products more difficult to find. Beyond that, personal style and identity are just as important to the disabled consumer as they are to anyone else, so limiting the pool of products available to them only narrows and limits those choices.

In 2022, the barriers to inclusivity within the fashion industry remain many and myriad: from the lack of physical access to shops, dressing rooms and fashion events, to the paucity of inclusive design modules in training courses and the lack of different body types strutting or hurtling down the runways.

Another sore point involves inappropriate and inaccurate stylistic assumptions about what disabled customers need and want.

In the eternal juggle between form and function – too often the latter wins – with brands preoccupied with the need for comfort as well as style and emotional attachment.

Seeing is believing

Just before New York Fashion Week last September, Genentech, a pharmaceutical company that makes drugs for people with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), sponsored the Double Take fashion show with the aim of subverting some of the ideas misconceptions that overshadow the adaptive clothing industry.

Rather than overly medicalized functional solutions and sportswear, the show primarily used models with disabilities showcasing high-end glamorous evening wear, proving that comfort and function need not come at the expense of stylistic flourishes.

The show was undertaken in conjunction with Open Style Lab, a non-profit started at MIT in 2014 dedicated to devising functional yet stylistic clothing for people with disabilities through the use of collaborative teams of designers, engineers and occupational therapists.

Andrea Saieh is an Open Style Lab fellow who assisted in fitting some of the dresses seen at the Double Take show and is a stylist with her own namesake brand based in Bogotá Columbia.

She says her experience working on the Double Take show served as a timely reminder of the importance of meticulously co-designing with people with disabilities:

“As stylists, we have to make sure we listen to people about what they need. Too often we design clothes but don’t listen to what disabled people are saying and only make assumptions about what we think they want.”

Sawsan Zakaria (pictured above) was born with spinal muscular atrophy and walked in the Double Take fashion show.

“Perhaps many clothing manufacturers assume that people with disabilities can’t think for themselves and don’t care about their appearance. Often times, a lot of adaptive clothing is, as best I can put it, very medical-looking,” she says.

“Eventually, I know that because of my disability, I stick out like a sore thumb. But the great thing about fashion and maintaining a personal style is that it moves away from all that disability-centric stuff and helps disabled people fit in, tell their story, and put others at ease to just talk about clothes and tell you he likes your shirt.”

Recognize the looser fit

Shay Senior, who runs Israel-based adaptive clothing accreditation and consultancy Palta, believes the industry requires a mindset shift to not see adaptive clothing as a limited market that only serves people with certain types of disability.

“Rather than talking about adaptive clothing, we like to think more about inclusive clothing lines and universal design,” Senior says.

“Instead of just thinking about a pair of pants marketed for a wheelchair user, how about something that works for other people who maintain a seated posture for many hours of the day like office workers?”

He continues: “Magnetic closures might be helpful for someone with dexterity issues, but there are also a lot of non-disabled people who like the style and just want to be able to get their shirt on and off quickly.

“Too often the global brands we speak to fear that designing an adaptive collection would be a complete departure from what they are doing right now and that they would need new factories and fabrics but, in reality, it is not so black and white and the markets they are much more interconnected than they imagine,” he explains.

Saieh couldn’t agree more:

“Instead of having brands just for people with disabilities, it would be wonderful to get to a place where all fashion brands do that,” she says.

“In fashion, every designer and brand has their own unique aesthetic and in an equal world, people should be free to choose the aesthetic with which they most identify.

“Eventually, these big fashion brands already have the basic design and therefore can think about adaptive variations in much the same way they do for different sizes, as long as they are doing their research and getting customer feedback.

“Brands will save money because they largely use the same design, same materials and it’s essentially the same clothing with minor changes for customers for whom it will make a big difference,” says Saieh.

One would imagine that such a difference would extend way beyond the feel-good factor of wearing something you love the look of.

Physical comfort is clearly important too, but the psychological warmth that comes from seeing one’s personal needs and style constantly reflected on clothing shelves, online stores, and the media should never be underestimated.

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