From constrictive corsetry to blistering 6in heels, the oft-quoted line: “You have to suffer for fashion,” has afflicted humanity for centuries (however much it seems alien to our current wardrobe of Zoom-friendly sweatpants). But what happens when even a simple garment is disabling? Or when suffering for fashion is not a stylistic choice, but an everyday reality that can affect someone’s quality of life?
For many disabled people, off-the-peg clothes are inaccessible and cause discomfort, from fiddly buttons to seams that chafe in a wheelchair. “Clothing plays an important part in living well,” says Monika Dugar, the designer of Reset, an adaptivewear brand that launched at a virtual event during London fashion week. “Due to restricted mobility, clothing choices can impact whether people with disabilities can operate functionally.”
Inspired by Dugar’s father, who has Parkinson’s disease, the first Reset collection fuses op-art prints with solution-based design; think jackets with Velcro closures and a polo neck with easy-entry shoulder fastenings. “Every garment has to make a statement; a statement where design and functionality merge,” says Dugar. “We go through multiple stages of prototypes, testing and feedback.”
Thinking about fashion in this way requires designers to become engineers, utilising problem-solving, innovation and empathy. Although she studied at the London College of Fashion and completed internships at Paul Smith and Mary Katrantzou, Dugar’s foray into adaptivewear is self-taught. “An important part of the process is failing – and recognising this – to bring the best solution,” she says. “Designing for people with disabilities isn’t a trend, it’s a necessity.”
The launch of Reset reflects a growing demand for disability-friendly fashion. With the adaptive clothing market forecast to be worth nearly £280bn by 2026, it is unsurprising that a handful of brands have their sights on this overlooked consumer group.
This month, Nike released its first hands-free trainer. Three years in the making, the Nike Go FlyEase aims to revolutionise footwear for people who can’t put on shoes independently. The design features a “bi-stable hinge”, which allows the wearer to slip in, step down and get moving in one action, requiring no bending or unfastening.
In addition to the established brands, there are several startups in this space. Take Unhidden Clothing, a label offering minimalist wardrobe staples that accommodate colostomy bags, with the option to request further alterations at checkout.
Then there is Megami, which is redefining post-mastectomy lingerie with its sultry bras that feature discreet pockets for prostheses. Another is I Am Denim, which designs stretchy jeans for wheelchair users and people undergoing abdominal surgery; a hidden Lycra panel sewn into the waist prevents discomfort when seated.
Despite encouraging statistics and inclusive product launches, adaptivewear remains a niche market and is struggling to reach consumers. A recent New York Times investigation exposed how algorithms routinely blocks adaptive fashion adverts from platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Mostly, it comes down to product misidentification: items promoting medical devices are automatically rejected for policy violation. Here, technology is an impediment for the adaptivewear market, but used correctly it offers vast potential.
Advances in 3D printing will revolutionise fashion for disabled consumers. Whether it is a specific leg length, to accommodate amputations, or easy-access fastenings, individual features can be edited on to printed garments. “It allows the customer to tailor the tightest of details. Areas of ‘bespoke editions’ can be saved as a file that’s used on various items, not just the one look,” says Leanne Elliott Young, a co-founder of the Institute of Digital Fashion. “This means a lot for those who don’t fit into fashion’s old-school structures.”
Other innovations include fuseproject’s Seismic powered suit, a wearable device that augments the body with cyborg-like abilities. The bodysuit contains electric muscle power to improve strength and mobility. The Dutch designer Pauline van Dongen, meanwhile, has prototyped smart knitwear. Her Vigour cardigan monitors the wearer’s biometrics through sensors in the yarn to aid physiotherapy treatment. There is also a biotech company pioneering fabric that releases antioxidants and nutrients into the skin.
With expensive price tags, long waiting lists and unavailability in developing countries, adaptivewear will unintentionally increase inequality among disabled people. Governed by commercial incentives, companies put profit-making over providing unfettered access. It raises the question: should consumerism be attached to products that address medical needs?
“Adaptive design is a basic human right,” says Maura Horton, the founder of the e-commerce site Juniper, which is launching in the UK this year. Aiming to be the Asos of disability-friendly clothing, Juniper will make adaptivewear more accessible than ever. “If we are doing our jobs correctly, there will not be an up-charge for adaptive design,” says Horton. “More designers exerting the space will help form a competitive landscape.”
As fashion faces a moment of reckoning, adaptivewear sets a precedent for diversity. From the design process to the models and end customers, it is a world where inclusion can no longer be an afterthought.