Ramping Up Fashion’s Accessible Future
The fashion industry is designing adaptable clothing for disabled people, but is that enough to undo the industry’s ableism?
My fashion sense leaves much to be desired, but a few times a year I visit the Tommy Hilfiger outlet.
When I was in high school in the early 2000s, I liked Hilfiger’s oversized shorts because they covered my knees. As an adult, I appreciate Hilfiger’s refined style and soft fabrics, though now I can choose between a handful of brands that cater to my kind—something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. I’ve been in a wheelchair for 26 years. My daily routine involves choosing a T-shirt from the top of my drawer; if I have a special occasion, I’ll grab a button-up shirt from my closet. This is also how I choose my pants and shorts. The result is quite underwhelming—not just to me, but to those making assumptions about me on video calls or in real life.
Many of us aren’t even aware of it, but the proximity to clothes in our own homes, as well as the strenuousness of putting those clothes on, can profoundly impact who we are. Part of my slovenliness can be credited to my quasi-adoption of the disheveled-writer persona. I also lack fine motor skills, making it difficult to not only put on clothes but to find attire. Like many writers and creatives, I have a deep appreciation for everything artistic, from the colorful brushstrokes in a painting to the graceful fluidity of dance. So it’s ironic that I haven’t been keen on my appearance, though I’m accustomed to being perceived in a particular way—much like how a model is, fairly or unfairly, judged.
Whether we like it or not, the physically disabled are defined by our disability, from the language directed at us to the assumptions made about us. Thanks to social media, we’re increasingly becoming a society that values being seen, especially by our peers. And scientific research—not to mention our collective isolation during the pandemic—highlights how important it is for our well-being to socialize. It might seem paradoxical, but perhaps the key to forming your own subjective identity is being more objective—bringing out the sacred parts of yourself for others to see. The physically disabled do this every day, but the fashion industry hasn’t always given us the tools to express our personalities. Now, brands are employing inclusive techniques that acknowledge that our bodies are in a constant state of flux, always changing and evolving.
If the disabled are defined by the aesthetic of their disability, then an observable object like a white cane, hearing aid, prosthetic limb, or walker should be considered an essential part of our bodies. For instance, my wheelchair is an extension of my personality. A wheelchair or any type of mobility aid isn’t something to be feared, as many stories and media creations would have us believe. They’re the devices that make daily encounters, accomplishments, and the hopes and dreams of their owners possible.
There’s immense strength in this position. The physically disabled don’t have to worry about how to move or what to do with their bodies to make them more desirable, because much of that is already determined by medical realities. Instead, we can focus on the untapped potential of fashion’s blank canvas—ourselves—and, in turn, make ourselves more desirable through the art of fashion. This is precisely what Open Style Lab, created by Grace Teo at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014, is aiming to do. The 10-week summer program, which is now housed at New York City’s Parsons School of Design, pairs an engineer, an occupational therapist, and a fashion designer with a physically disabled client to generate a stylish piece of requested clothing.
The program has produced garments like the RAYN Jacket, which has a deployable pouch to block rain from falling on a seated person’s lap; gear for a young woman who has a muscle and joint disorder that makes it difficult to get dressed; and clothes for people with autism that prevent them from biting, hitting, or hurting themselves. Brands are getting better too, with Target, JCPenney, and Zappos introducing their own adaptive lines. In recent years, there have been more disability-owned and disability-themed fashion businesses that don’t mass-produce garments and then retrofit them (often unaesthetically) for disabled clientele. This effort to intentionally consider the disability community before or during the design process is laying important groundwork.
Fashion Enters a New Dawn
Getting stylish clothing should be easy, comfortable, and affordable, especially since the community trying to be served—the disabled—often have lower incomes. Take, for instance, Hilfiger’s adaptive wear line, one of the first of its kind, which is creating a cost-conscious model for other fashion houses. The company collaborated with the nonprofit Runway of Dreams to create a children’s line in 2016 and then followed that up in 2017 with its own line, which included magnetic zippers, velcro closures, and adjustable hemlines. While Tommy Adaptive may not be in Hilfiger stores (or the outlets I frequent), it does have its own website and releases ads with disabled models. Its on-demand purchasing cuts down costs and waste since Hilfiger doesn’t generate clothing surplus. Some might see the absence of adaptive clothing in physical stores as a slight, but it may be a harbinger of fashion’s online future.
Digital fashion startup Auroboros is certainly hoping that order-on-demand becomes a mainstay. The company dabbles in physical couture, but its primary focus is becoming the luxury fashion brand of the metaverse. Its environmentally sustainable approach involves customers trying on digital clothes on top of their existing clothes using augmented reality (AR) technology, like Snapchat’s AR spectacles or Meta’s virtual reality headset. When a customer finds something they like, they can send a screenshot of themselves wearing the piece to the company, which will customize the fit to match that individual’s measurements. Environmentalists and younger generations rightfully focus on the positive impact this fashion future could have on the planet, but AR fashion could be a huge boon for those with “unconventional” body types.
Up until this point, artificial intelligence has hit some hurdles as it relates to autonomous driving and video games because it struggles to recognize shapes that may function differently than most ambulatory bodies. AR can be the solution to that problem while also bringing colorful, cutting-edge designs to bodies the fashion industry overlooks. “I don’t think there is any sector or industry that will be untouched by AR,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told Vogue in 2017. “If you think about a runway show in the fashion world, that’s a great application of AR because some of these, you want to see the dress all the way around, you do not want to just see the front.” Consumers and designers will also be able to use AR mirrors to adapt garments to bodies instead of forcing the body to fit the fashion. But it’s not all about your wardrobe.
Take FFORA, which sells handbags and cup holders that attach to wheelchairs. Right now, patrons can enter their specific wheelchair model on FFORA’s website to see whether the cup holder will attach properly (although not every wheelchair model is available on the website yet). AR could help this situation by providing a way to view a handbag next to your mobility aid. FFORA is demonstrating how mobility aids aesthetically reflect the user and provide spaces on bodies for designs we have never seen before.
No stranger to the inclusive design game, Izzy Wheels has been featured everywhere from Good Morning America and TechCrunch to The Irish Times, and it recently partnered with Disney. Sisters Ailbhe and Izzy Keane began designing intricate, ornate covers for wheelchair wheels after Ailbhe completed a project at the National College of Art and Design. Ailbhe got the inspiration for the idea when she noticed that when people saw her sister Izzy (who uses a wheelchair due to spina bifida), their reactions didn’t reflect her sister’s effervescent personality. “I have always loved expressing my personality and style through the clothes I wear, but as a wheelchair user, I am acutely aware of how much more limited clothing options are for people with bodies similar to mine,” Izzy says. “I am genuinely so proud to be a wheelchair user but I do not want that to be the only thing a person sees when they meet me. I want to be seen by others as a colorful, stylish wheelchair user.”
Izzy Wheels now has myriad patterns for purchase on its website, a trend that Izzy hopes other fashion houses will model. “I firmly believe that fashion designers and clothing brands are missing a trick by not catering to disabled people when they are designing their clothes,” Izzy says. “We are a huge market who are gagging to spend money on beautiful, stylish clothes [that] we know will work for us and make us look and feel wonderful. For example, there are 40,000 wheelchair users in Ireland alone, and we are being completely overlooked by the fashion industry.”
A Glorious Fusion
But why stop at wheelchair covers or cup holders? Why not biodegradable, temporary spray paint to color-coordinate your mobility aid with your outfit? How about colorful, sleek patterns for prosthetics as opposed to the flesh or monochrome standard? With the support of big fashion houses, this era of inclusive design could become a widespread reality, providing an inside track for those houses to earn millions of dollars from disabled consumers. It can be easy to make fun of the hollow glamor of big fashion houses, and that is why it’s important to applaud when one has done something right, as Hilfiger and others are trying to do. But more major fashion houses must commit to inclusive design to increase availability, lower prices through competition, incite modifications, and offer more options. If the ingenuity of Open Style Lab can partner with the notoriety and financial resources of companies like Hilfiger, the only thing restraining the disabled from fully expressing themselves would be our imaginations.
When the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, some architects were frustrated by the mandated wide doorways, incline gradient on ramps, grab bars in bathrooms, sink or table height, and space required for a wheelchair to navigate, along with other limits and rules of the law. But once they learned how to operate within the regulations, we got the clever blueprints that we see today in universal design. With enough supporters, the fashion industry could accomplish a similar feat. In today’s world, where clothes don’t have to be displayed in a store window but can be featured on a website, the disabled community’s plethora of blogs and online personalities could swiftly spread the word about designers and their adaptive products. When the disabled’s necessary accoutrements are seen as parts of a singular unit to be designed upon—something that, through stylish alchemy, becomes one with its user—then that disabled individual’s true self can shine through. Then maybe, just maybe, all types of bodies will be seen as whole through the eyes of others.