fashion

Opinion: Fashion needs adaptive design to accommodate Disabled people

Written by IhebQld

In July of this year, entrepreneur Maria O’Sullivan-Abeyratne launched Adaptista, an online marketplace for adaptive and inclusive fashion brands. The digitally accessible platform breaks new ground in an industry centred on garments designed for disabled, mobility-impaired, and chronically ill persons – a market that is predicted to grow to almost USD $400 bn by 2026. With one in five people in the UK reporting a disability, and the reality that anyone can become disabled at any time, labels like Nike, Tommy Hilfiger,  and Collina Strada have already altered the seams of their creative strategy to make adaptive fashion a key tenet of their brand DNA. 

The idea for Adaptista came to Maria, who has ankylosing spondylitis, as she was searching for a wedding dress that would fit her both comfortably and stylishly. Uncovering some 4,500 adaptive brands during her research, the ingenuity of her platform is two-pronged: not only does Adaptista eliminate many of the physical barriers faced by Disabled consumers when shopping, it also nurtures a community of Disabled designers, directly involving them in the fashion industry.

One week after the platform’s launch, Gucci announced that they had become a certified participant in the Disability Equality Index – the first, and only, luxury fashion house to do so. A score of 80 out of 100 ranks the brand as one of the best places to work in terms of disability equality and inclusion. This comes as no surprise. Gucci has long shown an authentic commitment to diversity and inclusivity, working with accessibility consultancy firm Tilting the Lens as a strategic partner. The firm’s CEO Sinéad Burke, who also sits on Gucci’s Global Equity Board, affirms that “there’s a wide remit in thinking about people, places, product promotions; supporting the team and moving the dial to think about disability and inclusion in a way that is aligned with Gucci values and brand.”

Photo by Ernesto S. Ruscio/Getty Images for Gucci

Such successive positive headlines may conjure a sigh of relief; a glossy hope that perhaps the global luxury fashion industry is finally untangling itself from its claggy history with diversity and inclusion. But as Sinéad reminds us, “to transform a system that is as large as the luxury fashion industry, systemic change is gradual, not seismic.”  

Adaptive fashion is not a sparkly new panacea—nor one that should be othered to the Disabled community. Maria points out that “adaptive clothing is made for specific needs. Maternity wear is adaptive. Running shoes are adaptive.” Its closely allied term ‘inclusive,’ or ‘accidentally adaptive,’ refers to clothes that can be worn by anyone and “break down this idea of able-bodied versus disabled fashion,” she explains.

These terms should be used within fashion with care, to avoid applying them as clinical labels and generalising disability into a singular group. More broadly, such ‘labels’ can slide fashion into society’s (dangerously misguided) collective fantasy of predictability and standardisation. Even if adaptive fashion is rooted in the needs of the Disabled, the innovation it spurs is of benefit to everyone. Its vectors are generative, not constrictive; a source of creativity, not limited to compliancy.  

“What if we shifted the narrative of disability from one of inclusion versus exclusion, to one of curiosity for human diversity? To use fashion to explore and understand the multiple lived human experiences on this planet. And, most importantly, to stop viewing disability as anomalous, but as something that is full of pride and nuance and expertise and community.”

Titling the Lens intelligently positions its three core pillars of education, advocacy, and design within this expansive outlook, so as not to lose sight of the persons implicated by accessibility strategy. “This is about people feeling a sense of belonging and acceptance in the world,” Sinéad says. “Not that the only way is through brands and commercialism, but it does shape how other people see us and, in time, how we see ourselves.”    

For example, Tilting the Lens do not fixate on product alone, but emphasise a grassroots and grasstops approach. “Such a focus will only ever place the Disabled person in the role of the customer, rather than colleague, and runs the risk of only looking at that person in terms of spending power,” Sinéad says. “We immediately begin to create this valuation system of who gets to be part of our world and who doesn’t.” 

A similar human regard has always been at the heart of New York-based fashion label Collina Strada whose “brand DNA is now firmly cemented in the ability to look inward, even when we’re loud and expressive on the outside.” Many of the label’s garments are inclusive but in a way that celebrates the diversity of our lived human experience and modes of self-expression. Silhouettes are often fluid and seamless, making them accessible to wheelchair-bound persons, and feature access points and fastenings that are convenient to a multiplicity of bodies.

Ellen Fowles, a designer, academic and consultant within the sector of design and disability, echoes this very sentiment: “Adaptive fashion is not a question of style following function but rather a consideration of dignity. How people look completely affects how they feel, both physically and mentally.” 

Fowles first garnered attention with her graduate collection from the Royal College of Art, for which she designed garments for and with her grandmother, who is mobility-impaired, that “granted her the freedom to live according to her desires, rather than against the constraints of her medical clothing.” She has since worked with the New York-based organisation Open Style Lab and will now be spearheading the first inclusive fashion minor course in the USA at the Savannah College of Art and Design

“Change needs to occur at all levels of the industry,” Fowles says — and that starts with education. Ideally, similar programs will become compulsory in fashion studies across the globe so that considerations of inclusivity become reflexive, second nature for young designers. And fashion design programs must, crucially, be accessible to the Disabled community. To this effect, Adaptista is sponsoring Disabled students to complete their higher diplomas in fashion design.

“The reality is that humans are, at most, temporarily non-disabled. Anybody can become disabled. […] We need to stop thinking of adaptive fashion as a siloed segment; rather, it is a fertile realm of innovation that will benefit us all.”

As Sinéad stresses, “our label of success should be that the creative director themselves is Disabled – whether that’s temporarily, invisibly, or visibly disabled. We should be investing our resources in developing a pipeline of talent where disability becomes part of the fabric of the design room.”

In this tricky era of cancel culture, where the Great Eye of Social Media is quick to punish even the slightest of missteps, vulnerability – admitting we don’t know everything – can be scary. But what if we shifted the narrative of disability from one of inclusion versus exclusion, to one of curiosity for human diversity? To use fashion to explore and understand the multiple lived human experiences on this planet. And, most importantly, to stop viewing disability as anomalous, but as something that is full of pride and nuance and expertise and community.

To be more inclusive, designers needn’t reinvent the wheel in one fell swoop. Start small. Do you really need tags that stick out? Can seams be flattened rather than obtuse? Can you offer more fastening options such as magnetic buttons or zips with longer levers? Can shoes be sold individually, rather than in pairs? 

Two little people stood on a concrete floor, wearing bodycon dresses in black and white

Image via Customiety and courtesy of Adaptista

Designers are the first to know the intricate details of their garments, so a simple starting point is to publish comprehensive product information on websites, from hem length and button width to indicating where a print starts and ends. Over-communicate: offering such details up-front empowers consumers to decide for themselves whether an item of clothing will fit.  

The reality is that humans are, at most, temporarily non-disabled. Anybody can become disabled. And with humans living longer, mobility, physical, and mental impairments are a probable eventuality. We need to stop thinking of adaptive fashion as a siloed segment; rather, it is a fertile realm of innovation that will benefit us all.

Model Aaron Rose Philip wearing a patterned blue cropped dress with pouffe-y satin sleeves by Collina Strada. Aaron sits in a motorised wheelchair.

Image via Collina Strada. Photography Charlie Engman

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