On the runway at the Double Take adaptive fashion show on September 8 2022
Far from simply being a narrow niche concern, the adaptive fashion market is projected to be worth some $400 billion by 2026.
Adaptive fashion refers to clothing and apparel that is suitable for individuals with physical or sensory disabilities who may have difficulty dressing or experience severe discomfort and inconvenience wearing standard clothing.
Typical modifications to ensure clothing can meet the needs of disabled consumers may include magnetic and Velcro fastenings instead of buttons and laces for individuals with dexterity issues, concealed zips for access to external tubes and temperature control fabrics.
Though several specialist manufacturers of adaptive apparel do exist such as Belgium-based So Yes, U.K. brand I Am Denim and Chicago-based Social Surge – major fashion houses and brands have been slower off the mark.
Whilst forays by the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Nike into the adaptive clothing market are welcome, the latter in the form of its Go FlyEase trainer which allows for hands-free fitting, their presence is the exception, not the rule.
When it comes to assistive goods and equipment, there will, of course, always be a place for specialist providers, particularly when dealing with more complex medical needs.
Nonetheless, the lack of mainstreaming for adaptive clothes results in multiple downsides for shoppers with disabilities.
For a start, a paucity of consumer choice and competition inevitably drives prices up and makes products harder to source. Beyond this, personal style and identity is just as important for the disabled consumer as anyone else – therefore, limiting the pool of products available to them only narrows and curtails such choices.
In 2022, inclusivity barriers within the fashion industry remain multiple and myriad –from a lack of physical access to stores, dressing rooms and fashion events, right through to the scarcity of inclusive design modules in education courses and a lack of diverse body types strutting or wheeling the catwalks.
Another major pain point relates to misplaced and inaccurate stylistic assumptions about what disabled customers need and want.
In the eternal juggling act between form and functionality – too often the latter wins out – with brands preoccupied with the requirement for comfort over and above both style and emotional attachment.
Just prior to New York Fashion Week this past September, Genentech – a pharmaceutical company that manufactures medications for individuals with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) sponsored the Double Take fashion show with a view to subverting some of the misconceptions overshadowing the adaptive clothing sector.
Rather than overly medicalized functional solutions and active wear, the show primarily used models with disabilities showcasing high-end glamorous evening wear – proving that comfort and functionality need not come at the expense of a stylistic flourish.
The show was undertaken alongside Open Style Lab – a non-profit initiated at MIT in 2014 dedicated to conceiving functional but stylistic apparel for people with disabilities through the use of collaborative teams of designers, engineers and occupational therapists.
Sawsan Zakaria at the Double Take adaptive fashion show on September 8 2022
Andrea Saieh is an Open Style Lab fellow who assisted in adapting some of the outfits seen at the Double Take show and is a fashion designer with her own namesake brand based in Bogotá Columbia.
She says that her experience working on the Double Take show served as a timely reminder of the importance of meticulously co-designing alongside people with disabilities:
“As fashion designers, we need to make sure we are listening to people about what they need. Too often, we are designing clothes but not listening to what disabled people are saying and just making assumptions about what we think they want.”
Sawsan Zakaria (pictured above) was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy and was a participant on the Double Take runway.
“Perhaps a lot of clothing manufacturers assume people with disabilities can’t think for themselves and don’t care about their appearance. Oftentimes, a lot of adaptive clothing is, the best way I can put it – very medical looking,” she says.
“Ultimately, 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 just pulls away from all that disability-focused stuff and helps disabled people fit in, tell their story and put others at ease to just talk about clothes and tell you they like your shirt.”
Shay Senior, who runs Israel-based adaptive clothing consultancy and accreditation outfit Palta believes the industry requires a mindset shift away from seeing adaptive clothing as a limited market serving only individuals with certain types of disabilities.
“Rather than talking about adaptive clothing, we like to think more along the lines of inclusive clothing and universal design,” says Senior.
“Instead of just thinking about a pair of trousers marketed towards a wheelchair user – how about something that works for other individuals who maintain a seated posture for many hours of the day like office workers?”
He continues, “Magnetic closures might be good for a person with dexterity issues but there are also plenty of non-disabled people who like the style and just want to be able to put on and take off their shirt quickly.
“Too often the global brands we speak with worry 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 isn’t that black and white and the markets are far 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 just get to a place where all fashion brands were doing this,” she says.
“In fashion, each designer and brand possesses their own unique aesthetic and in an equal world, people should be free to choose the aesthetic they most closely identify with.
“In the end, these major fashion brands already have the base design and so they can think about adaptive variations in much the same way as they do about different sizes, as long as they are doing their research and getting customer feedback.
“Brands will save money because they are broadly using the same design, the same materials and it’s essentially the same clothing with little tweaks for customers for whom it will make a big difference,” Saieh says.
One might imagine that such a difference would extend well 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 both one’s personal needs and style consistently reflected on clothing racks, in online stores and throughout the media should never be underestimated either.