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Designing for Disabilities: The Rise of Adaptive Fashion

Abled does not mean enabled. Disabled does not mean less abled. Khang Kijarro Nguyen

Over the past few years, there has been a huge rise in demand for ‘adaptive fashion’. Adaptive fashion is “clothing specifically designed for those with disabilities and chronic conditions.” We’ve seen this on runways, across social media, and in magazines. Previously, there was always a lack of inclusion for those with disabilities in the world of fashion, however, now there is global awareness of making everyBODY feel worthy of the runway.

Owning the modelling industry

Particularly, there have been a tremendous amount of models who have broke the non-inclusive mould by sharing their disability stories with the world. Take Paola Antonini for example, she is a fitness model who sadly lost one of her legs in a car accident, yet she hasn’t let that stop her from totally owning the outfits she wears and making her mark on the fashion industry.

As well as this, another inspirational example is with one of the world’s first disabled models, Aimee Mullins. Aimee also had leg amputations due to fibular hemimelia but despite this, the American model and athlete defied the odds and made features in huge campaigns for Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Elle, and was also the face of L’Oreal Paris.

Rockin’ the runway

Astonishingly, there was once a time where disabilities weren’t even featured on the runway. However, this has all changed now thanks to major events like New York Fashion Week. Back in 2015, NYFW created a show called “Loving You” which featured a range of diverse models.

One of the models, Jack Eyers, was the world’s first ever male amputee to walk the NYFW runway. Eyers stated that he wanted “to show that having a disability doesn’t need to hold you back.” Extremely inspirational right?

WearABLE Future

As well as NYFW, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week also included models with disabilities. The event took place back in 2014 and was called ‘Fashion Without Borders’. Initially, the shows took place in Russia, but in 2016 the concept also branched out to Los Angeles.

The show started through a collaboration between Mercedes-Benz and Bezgraniz Couture. Bezgraniz Couture develop “education, art projects, design contests and fashion shows” to spread awareness about disabilities. The project also designs adaptive clothing to cater to every different body type, and to improve quality of life.

The $400 billion adaptive fashion market

According to Vogue Business, “the global market for adaptive clothing is expected to be valued at nearly $400 billion by 2026.” At the moment, the two of the top global brands for introducing adaptive fashion are Tommy Hilfiger and Nike. Since 2016, Tommy Hilfiger has been releasing different incentives to spread the word about adapting fashion for those with disabilities. The most recent example can be seen through the T.H x Zendaya Adaptive range at NYFW 2019.

For Nike, their impact on the adaptive fashion scene can be seen through the introduction of the ‘Flyease design’. This feature enables users to slide their shoes on and off with ease as laces are completely removed from the design. To take this concept further, the brand have paired up with an organisation known as ‘HandsFree Labs’, who specialise in “hands-free sneaker technology.” Additionally, in 2018 clothing retailer ASOS introduced a jumpsuit adapted for wheelchair users.

Taking the wheel on social platforms

There is now a huge movement for adaptive fashion on the likes of social media platforms such as Instagram. For example, online clothing brand Zappos raise awareness for its ‘Fashion and Function’ movement through a separate Instagram page called ‘Zappos Adaptive’. The page now has over 9,000 followers and celebrates disabilities whilst promoting the adaptive clothing pieces available to consumers.

Another example of disability awareness online is through the ‘Ted Talks Art’ podcast on Apple Podcasts. The influential platform posted a talk called “How adaptive clothing empowers people with disabilities” by fashion designer Mindy Scheier. The episode aims to teach the listener all about adaptive fashion, and the process behind creating an inclusive global line.

So, with all of this awareness across the globe, the demand for adaptive fashion will continue to rise and hopefully a lot more designers will follow suit to make every single consumer with a disability feel included. After all, everyone is worthy of feeling like they’re ready for the runway, no matter what capability they may have.


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