You might think that any product category expected to be worth $400bn by 2026 would be impossible to ignore. But adaptive fashion – the term given to clothing that is tweaked to suit the needs of Disabled people – has historically been overlooked by almost every fashion brand on the market.
Last week, I had the privilege of speaking with Sinéad Burke for the Weekend Edition about the pressing need for brands and businesses to fundamentally rethink how they approach Disability inclusion. This week, I’m zeroing in on product. Adaptive fashion is only one small piece of a very large puzzle when it comes to DE&I – but it presents an exciting creative and commercial opportunity, not to mention a significant step towards a more inclusive industry. So why aren’t more brands paying attention?
The answer, of course, lies in the discrimination experienced by the Disabled community. For brands world-over, providing fashion-forward ranges that work for Disabled people simply hasn’t been on the agenda. “There has been so little conversation, consideration or intervention for people in this space,” said Daniel Peters, founder of the (Fashion) Minority Report, a platform designed to create inclusive workplace culture. “We speak about the fashion industry being a saturated market, but for this target demographic there are so few products that address a very basic need.” Emily Davison, a fashion commentator and disability advocate, seconded this point, telling me that “there has been so little progress on product design or on accessible solutions for Disabled customers.”
Daniel and Emily are right. A quick Google search for an easy-to-fasten shirt offers me functional products in muted tones, many of which are designed for the elderly. On today’s market, there is little in the way of colour or style for Disabled people who require adaptive clothing.
Thankfully, this is changing – but slowly. Led by a new generation of creative founders, brands are emerging to challenge expectations around adaptive fashion and provide practical but elegant products for people with disabilities. It was incredibly exciting to visit London Fashion Week last weekend and attend the event hosted by Unhidden, a sustainable brand specialising in adaptive fashion. Never before has there been an adaptive fashion brand represented at London Fashion Week, so to witness this ground-breaking moment of positive progress was a privilege, yet the reaction in the room suggested it was long-overdue. In the US, the adaptive lingerie label Intimately has recently raised seed funding from the British Fashion Council.
A small handful of major players have also released adaptive collections. In particular, Tommy Hilfiger is blazing the trail, having launched its first adaptive kidswear range in 2016 followed by a line of modified styles for adults in 2017. The company now releases two adaptive ranges a year, and hopes to have adaptive options available across all Tommy Hilfiger product categories by 2025.
The business’ move into adaptive options is personal: as the father of autistic children, Tommy Hilfiger has experienced firsthand the difficulties that people with disabilities or other limitations have in getting dressed. “Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive is about creating fashion that is accessible to everyone, regardless of ability,” the founder commented earlier this week. “Getting dressed should be a joy – an experience that empowers you to look good and feel good in what you are wearing. Our adaptive collections have revolutionised everyday dressing for people with disabilities, giving them the independence and confidence to express their individuality through style.”
“Getting dressed should be a joy – an experience that empowers you to look good and feel good in what you are wearing. Our adaptive collections have revolutionised everyday dressing for people with disabilities, giving them the independence and confidence to express their individuality through style.”
Another business to embrace adaptive fashion is M&S. The retailer offers a range for kids, which includes products with opening for feeding tubes, hidden labels, soft fabrics and flat seams for comfort, and rip tape shoulder opening on tops, elasticated waists and trouser hem opening for easy dressing. “We realised that no one on the high street was offering such a range,” said Jill Stanton, M&S’ director for Women’s, Kids and Beauty. “There was a real need in the market, and we felt that it was really important to help these families and make their lives (and their shopping) a little easier.”
Despite these shoots of progress, the Disabled community remains woefully underserved. Disability advocates are united in the conviction that adaptive fashion should be available at a range of price points, in a variety of styles and be integrated into brands’ mainline collections. This doesn’t seem too much to ask – we’ve seen a similar evolution with plus-size ranges and styles for maternity wear. The need for affordable options is particularly pressing, especially given that nearly half of everyone in poverty is either a Disabled person or living with a Disabled person.
“Brands think there’s no need for it because no-one has been clamouring for it, but the truth is they just haven’t asked anyone.”
For fashion businesses, the journey towards a more inclusive product offering must start by engaging with the target customer. I caught up with Victoria Jenkins, founder and CEO at Unhidden, who explained this further: “brands think there’s no need for it because no-one has been clamouring for it,” she said, “but the truth is they just haven’t asked anyone.” Daniel Peters furthered this point, suggesting that “businesses need to go out into communities and listen. Holding focus groups will allow leaders to learn about what Disabled customers actually want, rather than making assumptions.”
On product design, integrating Disabled perspectives will be key. “We must create product with the Disabled community, not for the Disabled community,” reflected Sinéad Burke. “By living the mantra ‘nothing about us without us,’ we can ensure that Disabled people are not just those who try the product once it’s created and offer feedback, but are part of – and even lead – the entire process from the very beginning.”
For Victoria Jenkins, bringing adaptive fashion into the mass market brings an exciting opportunity for collaboration between large-scale retailers and independent adaptive designers. “We need large retailers to be working closely with adaptive designers,” she told me, “at least until those retailers have brought in designers who can do it meaningfully and properly – not just as a one-off or capsule collection.”
“We need large retailers to be working closely with adaptive designers, at least until those retailers have brought in designers who can do it meaningfully and properly – not just as a one-off or capsule collection.”
There is certainly ample opportunity ahead. By embracing adaptive fashion, brands can bring in new customers, become more inclusive organisations and learn critical lessons to apply to mainline designs. As Jill Stanton from M&S explained: “there are learnings that we have applied to our broader Kidswear range, like our attention to detail around comfort. Kids really love anything with an elasticated waistband, soft handle fabrics and products that pay special attention to labels and fastenings.”
When it comes to disability inclusion, paying more attention to adaptive fashion is a critical step in the right direction. But it is not the only step organisations should take. In ecommerce, for example, a lack of digital accessibility remains a significant barrier to entry for some Disabled customers – 91% of websites aren’t accessible to people who rely on assistive technology.
Ultimately, we know that change happens in the boardroom. In last week’s column, Sinéad Burke urged leaders to ask “who’s not in the room?”. Too often, the answer to this question is Disabled people: we know from previous research undertaken by MBS that only 7% of retail businesses in the UK have a physically disabled leader at executive committee or direct reports level. Meaningful and lasting change won’t come from a capsule collection of adaptive shirts – it will come from hiring Disabled leaders into the most senior roles.