The adaptive fashion market has been unfairly underserved, but is showing signs of change. Meet the innovators whose ‘anything goes’ approach to design is working to level the playing fields of fashion and function. By Jen Nurick.
The adaptive fashion market has been unfairly underserved, but is on the brink of change.
WHEN CHER HOROWITZ confronted her high school nemesis for wearing the same outfit as her own in Clueless, she famously charged: “Do you prefer fashion victim or ensembly challenged?” Though delivered in the movie as a joke, the question she posed could apply to the one in five Australians who live with a disability that can affect how they get dressed. If clothing is designed to support us, in what ways does it fail us? And how can designers fill holes in the adaptive market so that fashion – with its promise to empower and uplift – can be a tool for positive change?
In 2020 designers are still wrestling with these questions. As the fashion industry inches toward a more even-keeled focus on inclusivity, body positivity and sustainability, designers are working to build positive change into their businesses. At Gabriela
Hearst, this meant staging a carbonneutral spring/summer ’20 show and upcycling deadstock fabric. For
Balenciaga, casting everyday people as models felt most progressive. Call it feel-good fashion. They have made meaningful strides (see age, race and size diversity on the Chromat runway, or a loosening of gender-focussed clothing with combined men’s and women’s shows at Eckhaus Latta), but a significant demographic has been left out: people with disabilities.
The imbalance is shifting, though. Tommy Hilfiger is leading the charge in the mainstream with apparel line Tommy Adaptive, inspired by his autistic children’s struggles with dressing, while Victoria Beckham and Alessandro Michele at Gucci are seating disability activist Sinéad Burke in the front row to bolster visibility at fashion week. For her Savage x Fenty show, Rihanna enlisted model Lauren Wasser – whose legs were amputated after battling toxic shock syndrome – to walk the runway. There’s hope that real change will be felt from the top down. But there is no fix-all solution: we cannot lump adaptive wear with clothing for the elderly, or point little people to childrenswear that neither reflects their age nor sensibilities. As Burke told Vogue Australia last year: “[Initially, my style] was born out of availability, rather than personal taste.”
Since 2019, when Business of Fashion projected that the adaptive market will be valued at $529.8 billion by 2023, brands are recognising the category as an economic proposition as much as a social one. But why haven’t they done so sooner?
“[Many brands] don’t have disabled voices within the company. They don’t want to offend anyone by not doing it right,” says Christina Mallon, chief brand officer of New York-based Open Style Lab (OSL). “We need to put it in the hands of people with disabilities.” Launched in 2014, OSL is a nonprofit incubator for inclusive design educating university students before they enter the industry. “We take fashion designers, occupational therapists and engineers and put them with someone with a disability,” she explains. “Together they create a garment to help with dressing or to reduce body temperature – different problems [clients] run into – but also make sure it’s beautiful.”
The results are incredibly innovative and fly in the face of conventional garment design. Built-in bras make dressing easier, while tactile textiles help the visually impaired feel their way to expressing personal style. Mallon insists cross-pollination between industries is key to nurture innovation, but she’s conscious adaptive fashion can be highly bespoke and so remains difficult to scale sustainably. As such, her team are making toolkits with needle, thread and an enlarged version of a traditional threader, so users with poor grip can hack clothing themselves instead of buying it new. This could mean adding pockets where wheelchair-bound users can access them, or replacing zippers at a garment’s back with Velcro.
As OSL’s CEO and assistant professor at Parsons School of Fashion, Grace Jun, explains: “Style is the most intimate form of
“The available products had a medical focus rather than a fashion focus”
self-expression. Whatever enables you to communicate yourself independently with dignity, that’s our goal.”
She is honing in on the psychological effect that results from the shortage of adaptive clothing. ‘Enclothed cognition’ – an idea developed by Hoja Adam and Adam Galinsky in 2012 – refers to the ways our experiences of wearing clothes can impact our psychology. In the fashion industry, designers may perceive adaptive clothing as a creative hindrance or a financial strain that requires additional fit models, time and a rethink of scaling strategies. Imagine the abbreviated length of a mini-skirt when it can only be worn seated, or the process of throwing on a coat if you can’t use your arms. Given its bespoke demands, adaptive fashion is certainly challenging, but should be seen as an opportunity to better disabled people’s lives.
Parsons graduates and co-founders of design firm Cair Collective, Amy Yu Chen and Claudia Poh recognise that we have to work at the intersection between healthcare and fashion to innovate in the category. This means including disabled people in the conversation and enabling designers to work on flexible time lines, unlike the fast-paced fashion schedule. “You’re not given enough time for ideas to manifest,” says Poh. OSL facilitated both designers to study their clients’ (whose arms were paralysed) routines and to innovate accordingly, while limited resources called for creativity. “[One client] used a doorknob, a bedpost, to get dressed. She would bite onto a garment [to enter it],” says Poh. “We thought: ‘Okay, how can we build upon these systems?’” They found their answer in air, designing an inflatable skirt that could be manually pumped by foot to drape down the body and defy gravity until deflated.
Camila Chiriboga, a Tokyo-based Parsons graduate and founder of label Veº, has identified another underserved group, designing clothing in collaboration with the visually impaired. All clothing is reversible and special features like front-facing zippers minimise dexterity challenges, while built-in scannable barcodes provide a description of the garment. Chiriboga asked herself: “How do you create a visual identity when visuals are as intangible as feelings?” In lieu of sight she relies on sensory stimulation, using textures – a single garment might include wool, velvet, padding – so clients can express their style.
Footwear technology company Handsfree Labs (HFL) shares Chiriboga’s philosophy that people with disabilities should not be excluded from fashion. Working at the nexus of innovation and fashion, it has developed patented technologies that enable users to put their shoes on hands-free (the company partnered with Nike in 2019). As HFL’s CEO Monte Deere explains: “The ‘pain point’ of putting on shoes is common to everyone, but is particularly challenging for disabled persons.” The company’s F1 Titanium Arc overcomes this challenge: the discreet paddle reinforces the back of a shoe’s heel for hands-free entry and may be inserted into boots, flats or sandals. “Consumers of adaptive fashion want fashion first, not footwear and apparel that looks ‘adaptive’,” Deere says. But these go hand in hand: “Technologies that will enable adaptive functionality are both demonstrative and progressive in style.”
Locally, Matthew Skerritt is raising awareness in Australia and New Zealand with EveryHuman, an online marketplace for adaptive fashion founded in 2019. “It didn’t take me long to realise that the available products had a medical focus rather than a fashion focus; the options were poor quality with no marketing spent on making clothes feel ‘sexy’,” he says. For Dr Beth O’Brien, who has diastrophic dysplasia and was inspired by Burke to begin disability advocacy, her engagement with fashion is stymied not only by the lack of offerings available online, but also by the challenges she faces offline when visiting stores in her wheelchair. “Making small changes to store policy can have a substantial impact on the experience of people with disabilities,” she says. “If brands provided more information about fastenings (buttons or zips), material (stretchy or stiff), arm length … it would allow people with different bodies to make more informed decisions when buying online.”
Perhaps what is most important then is to reframe the ways we think about inclusive fashion and avoid sidelining the adaptive market from the mainstream. Poh advises not making assumptions and instead including people with disabilities in the process so they can raise problems that need solving and help devise solutions themselves. As Mallon says: “You’ll never get something so innovative as human interaction.” After all, fashion at its most fundamental is a vessel for the body – and everybody should have a stake in what they wear.