Last year, Tommy Hilfiger launched a revolutionary new line of adaptive clothing, making history as one of the first mainstream brands to do so.
The online retailer The Iconic quickly followed suit with an ‘adaptive edit’, showcasing Brisbane-based label Christina Stephens and Melbourne locals Jam The Label. So, with some of the biggest fashion brands in the world jumping on the adaptive clothing train, why don’t many of us know what it actually is?
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And yet, despite the worldwide news of Hilfiger designing his collection after his own personal experience dressing an autistic child, adaptive fashion still remains a bit of a mystery to many casual fashion connoisseurs. So, what exactly is adaptive fashion? Or, alternatively, universal design – as Jason Clymo, model and disability activist, prefers to term it.
“Universal Design is where the designs are created with everybody in mind,” says Clymo. “There are labels out there that are specifically just making clothes for disabled people, but what I like to get across is that those same pieces of clothing can actually be worn by non-disabled people too.”
So, in a nutshell, adaptive fashion is clothing that has been designed to accommodate different ability requirements for wearing clothing. Features that are more inclusive of a range of disabilities could include side zips, magnetic fastenings, hidden Velcro on shoes, more give or elastic waist functionality in pants, and sweat-proof fabrics.
Sounds great, right? Well, although the idea of high street fashion that is also inclusive for a range of ability levels sounds awesome in theory, in practice, it’s quite hard to find.
“It’s not very easy to find at all, in a general brick-and-mortar scenario,” says Penny Weber, founding member at the Adaptive Clothing Collective. “You can find adaptive fashion through disability providers, but obviously with limited options. Those focus more on function, but not necessarily on fashion.
“I don’t know if anyone has tried to go out on a date in oversized tracksuit pants – which is kind of what the default is for a lot of people who are post-medical, or have a disability – but it’s certainly not empowering.”
So why don’t we have more adaptive fashion design among mainstream brands, when there’s absolutely no downside for able-bodied consumers? Because who’s going to complain about more elastic in pants, or better sweat-proof fabrics, really?
Yet, despite the fact that adaptive clothing seems like a slam dunk for everyone, regardless of ability, brands remain reluctant to join the revolution. Sure, some of these design adjustments might cost a little more, but it’s hard to imagine that the business case for adaptive fashion doesn’t work on paper, particularly considering the potential for a significant increase in their consumer base.
“There’s a huge business case for coming from a universal design or adaptive fashion point of view,” says Clymo. “Mainstream brands are missing out on billions of dollars – because that’s how large the disability community is in most countries, it’s around 20 per cent.
“There’s a huge, huge gap in the market – and when someone does start doing that really well… there’s a lot of money to be made from that.”
Weber, who founded post-surgery adaptive label Recovawear after her own experience in recovery after a car accident, agrees that there is a huge untapped market for adaptive clothing.
“Are they being catered for, in the market? The answer is generally no,” she says. “There’s a large range of different disabilities that people can have… it’s not a one size fits all – and it certainly goes well beyond [the] grading of sizing. It’s different needs and different body shapes as well.
“It would be great for everyone to be able to feel like their best selves – and that’s something that everyone deserves, regardless of what walk of life they come from.”
Over the past few years, ability diversity has been at the forefront of diversity activism in fashion. From featuring disabled models on runways to inclusive marketing campaigns, the rise in representation has been an excellent step forward – and one that was long overdue.
However, behind the scenes, representation becomes almost more important than visibility in front of the camera or on the runway, especially when you start to work with models across the ability spectrum. It’s one thing to hire a model with a disability, and quite another to see that represented across the broader team – something that Clymo tells me is rare, if non-existent.
He speaks at length about how the lack of representation manifests itself in a range of ways; from booking inaccessible shoot locations, often with no disabled toilet access, through to a lack of adaptive design choices, styling options that don’t suit a range of disabilities, and even event planning faux pas.
One that comes to mind is a recent slip up at Australian Fashion Week where wheelchair-bound Olympian Reed McCracken was unable to get down the runway due to a pile of streamers. Beyond an increase in behind the scenes representation – something we can all agree is desperately needed across all areas of diversity within the fashion industry – it’s also the end product that we need to see endure the same transformation.
After all, why hire a disabled model, when you don’t even bother to make adaptive clothing in the first place? After the success of the Tommy Hilfiger range and the inclusion of adaptive edits on The Iconic last year, in 2022, hopefully, that’s something that we’ll see change.
“I’d like to see universal design, or adaptive fashion, go more mainstream,” says Clymo, about his hopes for the year ahead. “A lot of adaptive fashion is universally designed – it’s just not marketed that way. And I think breaking down this whole stigma and segregation in the fashion industry, it’s really important to break that concept down.
“Actually, you and I can both wear the same top – even though it has been adapted for me, you could still wear it. There’s no reason why you can’t. A lot of it is just in our heads. We just need to get over the idea that functionality can’t also be fashionable. Actually, it can.”
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