For people with disabilities, however, conventional fashion can be limiting. Mindy Scheier saw the gap between the clothes that her son, who has Muscular Dystrophy, wanted to wear—and the apparel that was actually available to him. Like any other eight-year-old, he just wanted to go to school in jeans, but they wouldn't accommodate the leg braces he needed.
Scheier believes there shouldn't be any compromise between what people with disabilities want to wear and what they can wear. In 2013 she founded her non-profit, Runway of Dreams, to bring adaptive garments mainstream. Though some independent designers have endeavored to fill the need, Scheier thinks there's plenty of room for improvement in the industry at large.
"The ultimate goal is adaptive departments that are no different than 'petite' or 'plus size,'" Scheier says of her aspirations. "We want to help we help bridge that gap between the fashion industry and a demographic that hasn't been serviced."
Though she has a fashion-design background—before establishing Runway of Dreams, Scheier designed and styled clothing for Saks Fifth Avenue and the INC private label collections for Bloomingdale's—Scheier never wanted to launch an independent collection. Rather, she wants to work with existing brands that already have established distribution networks and supply chains—like the 22-piece collection she developed with Tommy Hilfiger that goes on sale today online.
"In the beginning, people asked why not do your own line?" she says. "That would have been completely opposite of the mission, which is mainstream clothing made [to be] adaptive."
Hacking The Department Store
No two disabilities are alike, and even people with similar disabilities might experience it in drastically different ways—which is what makes adaptive fashion design such a challenge. To meet it, Scheier conducted focus groups and Facebook polls to find out what the pain points of dressing are for a large population. She received feedback from people with genetic disorders, wheelchair users, and limb challenges, among many others.
One of the most common problems involved closures—like buttons, zippers, and hooks—on the garments. The other was getting in and out of clothing. Scheier started by buying clothes off the rack at department stores and modifying them to make them easier to put on and take off. Her first hack involved replacing buttons with velcro, which didn't work very well. Then she tried using supermarket magnets, which worked on the shirts and pants, but fell short when it came to washing (the magnets would rust or stick to the metal in a washing machine).
Then she came across MagnaReady, a company that makes washable magnets. That solved the closure problem. Scheier's focus groups mentioned that pulling tops on and off over their heads was another big hurdle so she added openings in the back, too.
Bringing Adaptive Fashion To Market
Arguably the biggest challenge in adaptive fashion isn't the design itself—it's getting it into stores. That hurdle drove the design choices Scheier was making, and pushed her to make the results easy for mainstream brands to adopt.
"We can go to brands and say, these modifications fit into the already existing process," Scheier says. "We're not recreating the wheel, we're just modifying it to become adaptive for this community. Every part of the process is the same as their typical seasonal system."
After pitching her modified garments to a handful of mass-market brands, she struck a chord with Tommy Hilfiger. As a brand, the alignment made sense because it's family oriented, it creates garments for all ages, and it occupies an affordable segment of the market.
They developed 22 different items for boys and girls—pants, tops, dresses—that feature modifications like magnetic closures and openings in the back. Garments that can be donned in multiple ways helps both the wearer and caregivers. For example, if a wearer requires a feeding tube or colostomy bag that needs to be attended to during the day, a caregiver can get into the clothing through the back rather than having to undress the individual completely, which helps restore some dignity.
For shirts and pants, there's a magnetic hem system that allows users to shorten the length based on their own body type. The openings on pant legs are a bit wider to accommodate leg braces. Everything else is identical to the conventional kids' versions of the items: color, fabrics, style, and even price. Tommy Hilfiger is absorbing the extra cost to make the clothing, which generally comes from the price of a magnet versus that of a button—a fraction of a cent per piece.
"In designing something that's going to help people with different abilities, it was about way to make self dressing a easier and giving options that weren't available before," Scheier says. "And for the segment of the population that will never dress themselves, giving caregivers five, 10, to 15 minutes back in their day [that would otherwise be spent aiding dressing]—that was our mission."
Adaptive Design For Everyone
Runway of Dreams' ambitions reach beyond children's garments to apparel of all types. "The challenge of wearing undergarments was a big topic explored in the focus groups we conducted leading up to the Tommy Hilfiger collaboration," Scheier says. "We are currently working on a prototype of a bra with magnet closures in the front for ease of dressing. We are also in the process of developing an undershirt that has pockets for diabetes pumps or any other medical apparatus that needs to be carried on a daily basis. No mainstream brands are doing this and its definitely a priority for us."
Designing for the underserved leads to better, more functional products for everyone. It's an idea we've seen again and again: take for example OXO's good grips line, which was conceived of for users with arthritis but makes kitchen tools more functional even for those who don't have joint trouble. Or Sabi's line of accessible bathroom products, which was targeted to aging baby boomers but makes equal sense for people of all ages. Microsoft is applying the same kind of universal design thinking to improve user experience across the board, as well.
"The most important word is inclusion," Scheier says, and "showing the industry that this demographic needs to be included and represented."
All Photos: Richard Corman via Runway of Dreams