Business Planet heads to Slovenia to see why one startup is not only out to make money, it is also on a mission to make a difference with its range of functional clothing for people with disabilities.
When it comes to clothes, the options for people with disabilities can often be sparse.
Impractical, ill-fitting, styleless garb is frequently all that is available. Slovenian-Croatian startup UCQC is attempting to change that by creating functional, trendy and affordable fashion for wheelchair users.
The firm's co-founder Hedvig Af Ekenstam explained what inspired her to help start the business.
“I’m in the fashion industry and we met some wheelchair users on the way and we saw with clothes that we could really make a difference. We made for example a jacket for Luca here that he could for the first time, for many many years, could close himself, and this was an eye-opener for us and that’s why we’re here today.”
Pockets, zips, buttons, or simply the cut of a garment, can create real issues for wheelchair users. Features the firm has thought carefully about to address everyday challenges faced by wearers.
“The jacket is great. It was my first time closing my own coat in seven years. So that was a big thing for me. That was possible because of adaptive zippers. It's magnetic closing, so people with tetraplegic hands like me can close their own coat. And, I think overall it’s a much needed product in the disabled community, Paralympic Athlete, Luka Plavčak says.
But it’s not just functionality - UCQC has also deliberately made a point of giving equal importance to the look of its products.
“There are about 5 million wheelchair users, only in Europe, and they’re really forgotten by the fashion industry,” insists Hedvig Af Ekenstam.
Some fashion brands are finally starting to wake up to this niche but potentially substantial market. Despite that, the options for trend-seeking wheelchair users still remain limited.
“The thing I like about these clothes is that they are made in collaboration with wheelchair users so they offer exactly the adaptations that we need but also they are stylish and chic and that is all a young adult wishes for,” Para Dance Athlete Martina Smodiš says.
UCQC is part of a growing trend of companies known as social enterprises, in which a business gives equal importance, if not more, to their social or environmental goals instead of just profits.
The Slovenia-Croatian startup which is producing its products in Europe got going thanks to an EU initiative called the Worth Partnership Project. It provides business coaching, 10,000 euros in financial support and legal advice on things like intellectual property and protection, to help firms in Europe’s lifestyle sector bring their ideas to market.
Coordinator Korina Molla says the project gives entrepreneurs working in Europe's lifestyle sector the business skills they require to pursue their broader social goals.
“The projects selected have benefited from the coaching programme, where they’ve received training in how to make a business and a marketing plan, how to create a brand, how to market an idea. All of this with the aim of thinking, since the beginning of their project as a business, apart from the social aspect.”
Explaining the selection process, Molla adds: "We look for innovative ideas with a high component of design and all these ideas should be applied to the textile, fashion, footwear, leather, jewellery, furniture and accessories sectors. So that means the lifestyle industries.”
In addition to the Worth Partnership Project, each year the EU’s European Social Innovation Competition awards prizes for businesses that have the greatest impact on society. The theme for the 2021 edition of the competition is due to be announced this spring.
What is the European Social Innovation Competition?
- The European Social Innovation Competition, organised by the European Commission across all European countries, looks for new solutions to problems affecting society.
- Every year, a key issue is selected as the theme of the competition. Three projects offering the best solutions win prizes worth €50,000.
- Previous editions have explored issues such as the challenge of plastic waste, sustainability in the fashion industry and creating more jobs for Europe.