Fashion brands and retailers are making strides in the adaptive clothing market

By LEANNE ITALY Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Mindy Scheier worked in fashion before her son, Oliver, was born with muscular dystrophy. As he grew older and she watched him struggle to dress, her eyes were opened to the limitations of his industry for people with disabilities.

At age 8, Oliver wanted to ditch his everyday sweatpants for jeans, preferred by his peers. Her mother couldn’t find any to fit her leggings and had difficulty working the zippers and buttons, so she started making adaptations herself.

She put fabric closure strips on the inside seams of the jeans, and she replaced the button and zipper on the front with the same ones. The difference with Oliver was immense.

Today, Scheier is dedicated to educating designers and retailers about the need to embrace adaptive clothing through her Runway of Dreams Foundation and consulting and talent agency Gamut Management.

Scheier has incorporated some of America’s top brands and retailers. As adaptive clothing, footwear and other gear have made progress in recent years, more industry players need to get involved, she said.

“What we learned was that brands were so scared to enter the space for fear of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, not knowing where to start,” she said. declared. “We work with brands to guide them through the process.”

Oliver, now 18, is pleased with the progress, but said the fusion of fashion and function for his age group lags behind offerings for young children and adults.

“It’s a matter of opportunity and luck for people like me and people my age to express themselves through fashion like any able-bodied person,” he said. “It says a lot about who I am on the inside, and the right clothes allow me to do that.”

It’s also about including people with disabilities in the design process, taking care to offer things like hidden openings for medical ports, tubing and bags, or less bulk in the front and higher rise in the back of the pants for wheelchair users. It’s easier to dress on your own with things like pull-on loops on the sides of skirts and pants, and wider collars on sweaters.

Shoes should be wide and sturdy enough inside to accommodate braces or prostheses. Zippers or other fasteners make them easier to put on for people who don’t make full use of their hands.

Adidas was among the giants to work with Scheier. The company consulted with Oliver and others with a wide range of disabilities on an adaptive backpack that features a flat bottom, wider loops on the zippers and straps that can easily be attached to wheelchairs and scooters.

This photo shows shoes adapted by Billy Footwear. (Billy Shoes via AP).

From Tommy Hilfiger to Target, brands and niche online sellers such as No Limbits and Billy Footwear serve people with disabilities. JC Penney, Walmart, Kohl’s, Amazon, Uggs, and Zappos also offer suitable pricing.

Walmart is one of the newcomers, in partnership with brands specializing in adaptive. The company is working to bring prices down and include more styles for older kids.

“Tweens are, in my view, a globally underserved customer today,” said Brandy Lackey, senior director of product development at Walmart who worked on the recent rollout.

The accommodations required are as diverse as the people in need, including those with sensory processing issues who need softer, tag-free fabrics and flat seams without itching.

Niche sellers also see the need. A company called French Toast, for example, sells a crisp white Oxford shirt with magnets hidden behind a row of buttons for young people who have to wear school uniforms.

Billy Footwear was co-founded by Billy Price, a wheelchair user who broke his back at 18 and struggled to put on shoes on his own. Her company offers a slew of fashionable shoes with a zipper that runs down one side and around the toe, opening up the entire top.

“Our goal was to be able to come to market with an easy shoe that could work for anyone,” he said.

Working for everyone is important to Price, Scheier and others who support a one-size-fits-all approach that means adaptations are built into clothing and other gear that also appeal to able-bodied people.

In its eighth year, Billy Footwear made around $10 million in revenue last year, with customers evenly split between those who need accommodations and those who don’t.

With over 60 million adults and over 3 million children living with disabilities in the United States alone, Oliver sees a win-win for business.

“We want to wear this stuff, but we can’t,” he said. “There is a financial opportunity there.”

Open Style Lab, a non-profit organization committed to making style accessible to everyone, is also committed. It offers a 10-week program that brings together occupational therapists, people with disabilities, engineers and designers to co-create functional and stylish clothing and accessories, said Yasmin Keats, the chief executive.

“We want to educate the next generation of designers on how to do inclusive design better,” she said.

Erica Cole, 27, lost her leg in a car crash in 2018 when she was 22. She discovered that offers of pants to accommodate her prosthesis were far from fashionable.

This combination of photos shows shoes adapted by Billy Footwear. (Billy Shoes via AP).

“The socket was so big on my first prosthesis. My calf was more than the size of my thigh. So I wore sweatpants that were three sizes too big and shorts in the middle of winter because I couldn’t put anything over them,” she said. “So I started altering clothes for myself.”

She turned her solution into No Limbits. It offers low-rise jeans and other pants with side zippers, less bulk in the front, and stretchy waist bands for wheelchair and prosthetic users. It included front thigh pockets for easy access while seated.

Older children, she agreed, remain underserved. No Limbits hopes to rectify this in future drops.

“We have spoken to many parents and there is a lot of anxiety about children aging out of child size in adapted clothing. Suddenly they are in the junior section and there is nothing. That’s always where the gap is,” Cole said.

JC Penney entered the adaptive fashion marketplace in 2021. He consulted Alex Harold, founder and CEO of online adaptive fashion marketplace Patti and Ricky.

“We’ve been in the apparel business for over 100 years, but this was a new step for us and we wanted to make sure we did it with respect and with purpose,” said Chris Phillips, vice president. senior and general manager. merchandise manager for JC Penney.

Adaptations for caregivers of totally dependent people pose unique challenges.

Kimberly Peterson in Knoxville, Tennessee, is doing everything for her 14-year-old daughter, Tilly, who was born with a rare genetic condition, Joubert Syndrome. The teenager is non-verbal, in a wheelchair and has severe developmental delay.

Before openings for gastrostomy bags hit the market, Peterson cut his own. Today, she still struggles with long-sleeved tops, outerwear and sweaters for her 4-foot-8, 85-pound daughter.

A full zipper or fabric closure on the back of winter jackets and long-sleeved tops would be helpful, especially at an affordable price. But Peterson applauds advances in adaptive clothing.

“It’s good to see more inclusive beings,” she said. “It’s nice to have that element of normalizing kids who have challenges.”

Top of photo: This photo shows the top of a pair of disabled-friendly pants sold by No LimBits. (No limit via AP)

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