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Why disabled people have been forgotten by the fashion industry

Charley is a supporter of adaptive fashion
Charley is a supporter of adaptive fashion   -   Copyright  Unhidden

In recent years, sustainability has become a buzzword in fashion as consumers demand transparency and accountability from retailers. Searches for the term and related keywords increased by 75 per cent in 2019 on fashion platform Lyst, while the second hand clothing market is predicted to grow to 1.5 times the size of fast fashion by 2028.

These steps towards a more sustainable market are undeniably positive for the environment, garment workers and consumers - but some bodies are being left out of the movement.

While plus-size people struggle to find second hand or sustainable fashion in their sizes, those with disabilities seem to be a complete afterthought.

What is adaptive fashion?

It’s difficult enough for those with disabilities to find clothes that are stylish, comfortable and adaptive. Adaptive fashion is a term used to describe clothing designed for people who have difficulty dressing themselves.

It guarantees easy solutions like magnetic closures instead of buttons, concealed zips and openings for tube access, and is vital to ensuring comfort, ease when getting dressed and dignity for people with disabilities.

So when you add sustainability into the equation, it can seem like an impossible feat to find both accessible and environmentally-friendly options.

It’s crucial for people with disabilities to have access to clothing, so retailers are missing a trick by ignoring their needs. The spending power of those with disabilities - known as the purple pound in the UK - is much greater than that of ethical shoppers.

The global market value for adaptive fashion is an expected $400 billion by 2026.

The fact that the second-hand fashion market is set to reach $64 billion (€52.7 billion) by 2028 is widely celebrated.

But the global market value for adaptive fashion completely overshadows this at an expected $400 billion (€330 billion) by 2026.

Getty via Canva
Adaptive fashion is so important for people with disabilitiesGetty via Canva

Comfort, style and dignity

The biggest name so far to cater to the disabled is Tommy Hilfiger, which has an adaptive collection available to buy online.

However, there are some pioneering fashion brands that have identified the gap in the market and designed clothing that is both adaptive and sustainable.

Garment technologist Victoria Jenkins founded Unhidden Clothing in 2017 with a vision of bringing exclusivity, style and sustainability to adaptive fashion. The debut capsule collection is made entirely from dead stock fabrics and consists of five womenswear and five menswear garments.

Every item has been designed with care and thought, ensuring every body can enjoy wearing it - something so many fashion labels fail to do.

Victoria saw first-hand how the lack of clothing for disabled people compromised their dignity three years ago, when she met a woman in hospital who was forced to remove all of her clothes to be examined by doctors.

Unhidden
Accessible design is crucial for fashion to be truly adaptiveUnhidden

She says, “My job as a garment technologist is the construction of clothes, so I thought there must be ways of fixing the problem and started looking into it. There was nothing available and if there was, it wasn’t stylish at all. On top of that, there was nothing sustainable about it.”

As 80 per cent of disabled people are not born with disabilities, Victoria is planning to avoid waste by offering an alteration service for customers’ existing clothes and to hold workshops to teach customers how to adapt them at home.

“I don’t want money to be a barrier to people getting clothes that make them feel comfortable,” she says. That’s why Unhidden also offers payment plans via Klarna, so that everyone can access comfortable clothing.

The pioneering brands of the future

Fortunately, there’s been a slow but steady shift in the accessibility of adaptive and sustainable fashion in recent years.

So Yes is another notable fashion brand for the disabled, founded in Belgium by former Occupational Therapists Jessie Provoost and Sofie Ternest.

After witnessing patients with disabilities struggle to put on clothing, Provoost and Ternest pulled together their knowledge and experience and founded So Yes in 2016. They now offer both a menswear and womenswear collection consisting of wheelchair trousers and skirts, elasticated trousers and jackets with magnetic zippers, all of which are sustainably made and designed in-house.

They now offer both a menswear and womenswear collection consisting of wheelchair trousers and skirts.

Other brands choose to focus on a specific product that can be adapted for the disabled.

For eco-friendly and accessible jeans for men and women, UK brand I Am Denim, offer denim aimed specifically at those who have had abdominal surgery, are left with scarring or have suffered with hernias.

Each pair of jeans is integrated with the Ultimate Tummy Control Technology, which offers complete coverage when bending or reaching and support around the abdomen. I Am Denim also offers a pair specifically for postpartum women, suitable for post-surgery, post-pregnancy, resection, c-section, weight gain, scars and stretch marks.

The denim is manufactured at a Blackburn factory with over 150 years of experience, meaning customers can rest easy knowing nobody was exploited in the making of their jeans. Instead, they’re made to last with the customers needs in mind.

Friendly Shoes / So Yes / MIGA
Adaptive fashion brands which also have sustainability at their coreFriendly Shoes / So Yes / MIGA

But what about shoes? Friendly Shoes chose instead to focus on eco-friendly and adaptive footwear, offering comfortable and stylish shoes that are easy to slip on and off. The brand was founded by Joseph DiFrancisco, another former Occupational Therapist who was shocked to see so many people unable to put on shoes in his career.

Every pair is designed specifically for people who have difficulties with mobility, using zippers to enable their patented Easy Shoe Access. They also have a Friendly Sole System, offering comfort and support to the wearer. On top of all of this, they’re made with Gold Seal CSCB Certified top-grain sustainable leathers.

Then there’s the question of swimwear. MIGA Swimwear, who encourage women with disfigurements, disabilities and chronic illnesses to feel confident and comfortable by creating adaptive swimsuits made from regenerated polyamide yarn. Each garment comes with a canvas bag detailing its story, offering a personal detail to each purchase.

While mainstream fashion has a long way to go in becoming inclusive and sustainable, many small businesses are more clued up on what those with disabilities need.

These brands prove it’s possible to tick every box, offering those with disabilities hope for the future.