Last updated: Adaptive clothing: Inclusive fashion designed differently for $400B market

Adaptive clothing: Inclusive fashion designed differently for $400B market


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A dozen years ago, Jackie Hill was riding her Harley Davidson Nightster motorcycle when a man driving a Toyota truck came out of nowhere and t-boned her. At the hospital doctors quickly realized that while she was likely to survive, her left leg would not. They amputated it above her crushed knee.

Adjusting to reality wasn’t easy. One thing she didn’t anticipate was how difficult it would be to pull pants over her prosthetic leg and foot. Typical clothing was just too snug for that. What’s more, if she needed to adjust the straps of her new artificial limb to keep it from biting into her hip, quickly removing her pants to do so was equally problematic – especially in public.

For years, Hill tried to manage by wearing shorts more often. Then she discovered an online site selling adaptive clothing designed for people with disabilities or lack of mobility. And everything changed.

“I found jeans that had zippers on the sides, which made it easier to pull pants over my leg and shoe,” says Hill, now 46. “I couldn’t do that before unless, maybe, I was wearing bell bottoms.”

What is adaptive clothing: Definition, examples, benefits 

Adaptive clothing refers to clothing, accessories, and fashion designed to specifically address the needs of people with physical or cognitive challenges dressing themselves due to age, disability, or general lack of mobility. Adaptive clothing differs from what most people wear by incorporating simple designs that use special combinations of Velcro closures, buttons, snaps, zippers, and flat seams, while removing things like labels that might cause skin irritation.

Done right, it’s indistinguishable from other clothes hanging on racks or sitting on shelves. Adaptive clothing balances form with function with a focus on comfort and ease of use.

Examples of adaptive clothing benefits:

  1. If you’re confined to a wheelchair or wear a prosthetic all day, you don’t want abrasive material rubbing your skin and causing sores. The same holds true if you’re sensitive to specific textures or fabric.
  2. If you’re elderly and have difficulty dressing, you don’t need buttons or snaps that your shaky hands or weak fingers can’t manipulate.
  3. If you’re a caregiver, having to dress and undress a disabled person wearing traditional clothing can be challenging and time consuming for everyone in the room.

The adaptive fashion market is now predicted to be worth $400 billion by 2026.

While it may seem like a niche market, adaptive clothing is gaining traction:
  • Major brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Target, Zappos, Kohl’s, QVC, and JCPenney regularly unveil collections and lines for disabled people.
  • At least one Hollywood star, actress Selma Blair, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, is publicly backing an adaptive clothing line.
  • Non-profit organizations like Runway of Dreams and Guided by Humanity (GBH), meantime, have been sponsoring major fashion shows features models with disabilities or visible differences.

Fashion forward, clothing for all

The rise of adaptive clothing reflects reality. More than 1 billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, have some form of disability, according to the World Bank. In the US, one in four adults, or 61 million Americans, have disabilities impacting their daily activities.

Aside from the need to serve what Runway of Dreams Founder Mindy Scheier calls “the largest minority on the planet,” such figures suggest business opportunity for companies with future-ready mindsets.

For example, Scheier, speaking at the recent SAP Sapphire event in Orlando, noted something as basic as buttons and buttonholes haven’t changed much since they were invented in the thirteenth century. Only now, as they’re being repositioned to accommodate people with disabilities, is that evolving.

Just because things have been done a certain way “doesn’t mean that’s how they have to remain” forever, according to Scheier, whose son Oliver was born with muscular dystrophy, inspiring her work running a nonprofit dedicated to inclusive fashion.

Custom fit, compassionate design

Margaret Moton, a 29-year-old seamstress with severe dyslexia, is fully onboard with that idea.

She and her partner Liz Hill had been running a sustainable fashion business, Resourceful Threads, when a woman Moton knew asked her to customize clothing and a wheelchair colostomy bag cover for her disabled daughter. That work soon led to a non-profit organization asking her to come up with a line of adaptable yoga clothing for a fundraiser it was holding during Denver Fashion Week in May.

The line, which included Velcro-back jackets that can be easily donned and removed like a smock, was a hit with the audience and media as well. Resourceful Threads is now planning a new release for the fall.

“We’ve decided to make all of our clothing adaptable from this point on,” Moton says.

“With my dyslexia, I absolutely understand walking through a world that’s not designed for you. It’s alienating. And at times, it can be triggering, especially if you’ve struggled with or been shamed for having a disability. We want to help change that.”

Where adaptive clothing is headed

Moton believes the business opportunity in adaptable clothing is wide open. For example, she says that in the last 10 years, the fashion industry has been forced to cater to more people with different-shaped bodies. Short people. Tall people. Curvy people. Heavy People.

Ken and Barbie notwithstanding, few people match the idyllic shapes and sizes seen in ads. But finding sizes that really fit us can be tough. “Body acceptance” has become the new normal, she says, and that’s paving the way for new thinking.

“I hope that the next step will be more people in wheelchairs, more people on walkers, more people with disabilities, modeling major fashion clothing,” Moton says.

In addition, Moton says there is room for designers to broaden the colors and styles of adaptive clothing, which are dominated by black and tan colors along with heavy doses of stretchy plastic materials.

Jackie Hill, while appreciating the widening availability of adaptive fashion, agrees it needs revitalizing.

“Most of it is kind of so-so,” she admits. “In fact, sometimes I would rather struggle with pants that I like and that may have a little stylish gem on them than wear something that isn’t very appealing.”

Hill’s request to the fashion industry: Offer more chic styles. Brighten your color palettes. And do your research so you’ll know how comfortable the materials are before someone with a disability has to wear them for hours because, sometimes, they are not.

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