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How fashion designers are making a difference to people with disabilities

6th June 2018

Shopping can be stressful at times — some people are in-between sizes, others specifically look for clothes that don’t show sweat patches and a person’s height can limit their options, too. But, people living with a disability have an even smaller choice when it comes to deciding what to wear.

According to disability charity Scope, about 13.9 million people are classed as disabled in the UK. A total of eight % of children, 19% of adults and 45% of senior citizens have a disability, with most people having problems relating to mobility (52%).

I don’t want my 15-year-old daughter to be dressed as if she is 80

“My daughter has athetoid cerebral palsy, which means that she can’t walk or talk properly and she also relies on a wheelchair,” says Fiona Greenhow, whose daughter is a model with Zebedee Management, an agency for models with disabilities.

“This means that it can be difficult to get her dressed in clothes which don’t have elastic waistbands or stretchy neck holes etc.”

There are online retailers such as Rackety’s that provide clothing for disabled people, yet the clothes are designed more for practicality, which means they’re not always stylish.

“There are shops which specialise in clothing for people with disabilities, but they are not fashionable and I don’t want my 15-year-old daughter to be dressed as if she is 80,” says Lisa Kennedy, a mum whose daughter also has cerebral palsy.

“She’s at an age where she takes an interest in what she wears and she would like to wear outfits like her friends, and at the moment there are no shops which specifically cater for fashion and practicality.”

Why are there still not enough clothing options available?

With so many people having a disability, and the spending capacity of disabled people across the UK averaging at around £249bn a year, it’s easy to think someone would have recognised this largely untapped market and designed both fashionable and accessible clothes.

Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive Collection
Tommy’s Adaptive range also features disabled models 📸 Tommy Hilfiger

So, why are there still not enough clothing options available?

Well, one major issue is to do with there being such a diverse range of disabilities. It can be tricky to cater for all needs, yet there are some designers out there who are at least attempting to create clothes for all.

We all know of Tommy Hilfiger for its trademark red, white and blue prints and stripes, and for its recent collaboration with model Gigi Hadid; however, over the last couple of years Hilfiger has been designing and creating adaptive clothing lines for people with disabilities.

In 2016, Hilfiger launched an accessible children’s clothing line and in 2017, the first adult adaptive collection was introduced. The Spring 2018 Adaptive Collection is the third to be created and launched in April 2018.

The clothes look just the same as any other Hilfiger range, but the adaptive collection does what it says on the tin, items have been adapted to make them easier to wear. Adjustments include: magnetic buttons, adjustable trouser hems, wrist loops, Velcro fastenings and one-handed zips, and the line has been improved from comments made about the previous collections.

Chelsie Hill Tommy Adaptive
Chelsie Hill models the Tommy Adaptive range 📸 Tommy Hilfiger

“I was really impressed when I heard about the Tommy Hilfiger range, however they are a bit pricey and when your children are still growing it is difficult to justify buying something that they will soon grow out of, but the line is great for adults who have adaptive needs,” says Greenhow.

However, it appears the accessible range is still inaccessible in the UK. Speaking with a member of staff from the Tommy Hilfiger store in Leeds, it becomes clear that the adaptive clothing collection is only currently available in select stores across the US. Apparently, the collection will be introduced into the UK soon but the clothes will most likely be stocked in London stores first.

When it comes to footwear, Nike has been working hard to create trainers which are more practical that are available to buy across the UK.

“My daughter has a pair of the new Nike trainers which are great, the heel of the trainers comes off so it makes it easier to slip the shoes on,” says Kennedy.

The specially created FLYEASE trainers, which have a wrap-around zipper strap, were firstly designed after Nike received a letter from Matthew Walzer, a 16-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. Walzer asked the company to make some trainers that he could easily put on himself, making him even more independent.

Nike Flyease
The Velcro and zip combination makes this trainer really easy to get on and off 📸 Nike

Marks & Spencer should also be commended for its Easy Dressing school uniform range, which was launched in 2016. The high street store collaborated with the National Autistic Society and created shirts with Velcro instead of buttons, trousers that have no zips and fewer pockets, pull-up trousers and polo shirts for children who must wear a tie but find it too uncomfortable.

I really wish that more high street stores had elasticated waistbands or Velcro fastenings as there is definitely not enough adaptive clothing for us

Easy Dressing was created after the Marks’s ran an “investors wanted” campaign, asking children about their dream school uniform, and many parents responded about the issue of dressing children with disabilities.

In the UK, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike and Marks & Spencer are among the very few well-known brands that are trying to develop fashionable clothing for all abilities, but there is a strong demand for many more high street stores to get involved.

“I like to dress my daughter in H&M and River Island,” says Gaynor Smith who has an eight-year-old daughter with Down syndrome.

“I really wish that more high street stores had elasticated waistbands or Velcro fastenings as there is definitely not enough adaptive clothing for us.”

High street

In an ideal world, high street stores like Topshop, H&M, New Look and Zara would all have adaptive clothing ranges like Tommy Hilfiger. These shops are more affordable and popular and both disabled people and retailers would benefit from the venture.  

“If high street shops like Topshop and Zara were to get involved, then they would need to make sure that they market it well. They would need to make a range which is more suitable for disabled people but isn’t classed as special so that other people would also buy it too,” says Kennedy.

Models

Although the fashion industry is only just starting to acknowledge designing clothes for all abilities, the modelling industry is making some headway when it comes to including disabled people in campaigns and fashion shows.

Kelly Knox is a British fashion model and she was born without her left forearm. She and Jack Eyers, a model who had his leg amputated when he was 16, were the first disabled models to appear at the London Fashion Week when they appeared walking in the opening show in 2017.

The high street is slowly waking up, though.

River Island decided to mark its 30th birthday earlier this year with a campaign about “labels are for clothes, not kids”. The brand teamed up with anti-bullying charity Ditch The Label and the advert involved six children with disabilities, aged two to 11.

“I thought the River Island campaign was a lovely idea as it sends a good message out to people, but even so they still don’t stock any purposely adaptive clothing,” says Ms Greenhow.

Hopefully, designers such as Tommy Hilfiger and events such as London Fashion Week will help to raise awareness about adaptive clothing so that one day people with disabilities can have just the same amount of choice as anyone else.

6th June 2018