“Why are all the mannequins standing?” asks Lucy Jones, creator of wheelchair accessories brand Ffora, referring to the lack of options across retail for seated consumers. It is just one of the many perplexing observations aired during the 2-day event, “Cur8able Conversations,” on the power of personal style within the disabled community.
Stephanie Thomas, founder of Cur8able.com and a member of the Business of Fashion 500, asks why disabled people have to hack everything they buy. “I’m anti-hack. Can I just not have to do a hack in 2020?”
Many of us take for granted quite how much fashion offers us the ability to express ourselves and to have a role in how people perceive us. From an early age we are identifying and refining our image in subtle but limitless ways. The breadth of options can make us chameleons and grant us independence and a sense of empowerment. But what if the only clothes available to you means you are mistaken for a boy when you identify as a girl? This was the case for fashion graduate and founder of Short Favor, Dru Presta, who as a little person shopped in the children’s section for years but hated the Sesame Street colors and patterns of girl’s clothes and so had to shop in boyswear.
Jones who graduated from the fashion design program at Parsons believes that applying her knowledge and skills to developing practical, stylish accessories for wheelchairs is a critical part of the conversation. “A manual or electric wheelchair is just as customizable as a bespoke suit,” she says. “It reflects lifestyle and personality.”
1 in 5 people live with disabilities and it is a sector that could include anyone during the course of their lives. Thomas’s goal at Cur8able is to dismantle the ableist barriers that prohibit access to human-centered and adaptive design. Actress and activist Jameela Jamil, who has an invisible disability but spent 2 years in a wheelchair during her teens, tolerates no excuses for the neglect of this consumer, saying, “If you can’t, as a designer, design for different bodies, you’re just not very talented. You need to go back to school.” But the erasure of the disabled body in fashion academia is also a problem. “There is something much better happening,” says Jones who turns to Disability Twitter for the most relevant and up-to-date insights. “Having a community is a real force.”
How fashion can engage with the disabled consumer
Actor/model Danny Gomez was enjoying a successful career in image-conscious LA until he suffered a spinal cord injury at the age of 33. “For the first time I realized what it felt like to be invisible,” he says. These attitudinal barriers that still need to be overcome can be traced back to our formative years. “We are taught as kids to look away,” says Thomas. “So we don’t look wheelchair users in the eye.”
If as a society we don’t engage with the disabled community, perhaps it’s less surprising that the fashion industry demonstrates reluctance to dress this consumer. But the reality is that a potential 20 percent of the fashion-buying public is being forced to lop off the legs of pants or spend twice as much on tailoring as a garment is worth. Zappos stands out as the premier retailer in this space having earned the respect of the adaptive-wear customer for its disruptive policy of allowing single shoe sales, as well as its easy returns policy and helpful customer advice. Its website offers adaptive-wear brands together with products that are inadvertently adaptive, a great slip-on shoe, for example, or a shirt with zippers or magnets to meet the needs of those with dexterity challenges.
Derek Flores of Zappos describes their assortment of universal design as taking what is available on the market to suit the consumer and layering in essential pieces that are more design-specific. “Zappos can pivot, change on a dime, if an idea makes sense. That’s how Zappos Adaptive started.”
Tommy Hilfiger earns Jamil’s praise for how the designer has stepped robustly into the adaptive space, but she condemns the industry at large as "embarrassing". Continuing to miss out on such an opportunity to do business while all around brands are shuttering does seem a poor strategy to employ, especially now as we emerge from 2020’s most dramatic retail slowdown. Together with the aforementioned lack of design talent Jamil also points to the lingering problem of elitism at fashion’s higher end. “The word ‘exclusive’ should not be good. Exclusivity is not power, it’s stupidity,” she says, “You are excluding customers––money.”
Photo credit Brad Swonetz Styled by Stephanie Thomas for Zappos Adaptive
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.