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Can Adaptive Fashion Break Down Barriers and Ableist Views in the Industry?

Photo: Courtesy of Burberry

How many times have you pondered over the best outfit to buy, if jeans are the right fit, if the features you are most self-conscious about are on show or hidden? “Clothes shopping can be a challenge without a disability,” says Sophie Cooper, CEO of adaptive fashion brand I Am Denim, but imagine going shopping with the added anxiety of knowing most clothes are not even close to being designed for your needs. Cooper comments, “No one should feel forgotten or excluded from something as simple as finding fashionable clothes that fit and make them feel good.”

Adaptive fashion aims to break down these barriers and the ableist views dominating the industry. It is part of a movement to redefine what is beautiful and celebrate authenticity and uniqueness.

Tommy Hilfiger. Photo: Courtesy

According to the World Health Organisation, there are 650 million people with disabilities globally, roughly 10% of all the people on the planet. Adaptive fashion, which caters for this group and more, is predicted to reach almost US $400 billion by 2026 – a figure that hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, Tommy Hilfiger launched a line of clothes for people with disabilities. Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive includes clothing for adults and children, with easy magnetic closures, adjustable, expandable hems, sensory-friendly fabrics, and seated wear, for people who use wheelchairs. “Inclusivity and the democratization of fashion have always been at the core of my brand’s DNA,” said founder Tommy Hilfiger in a statement at the time of the line’s release. “These collections continue to build on that vision, empowering differently abled adults to express themselves through fashion.” Nike, meanwhile, has recently invested in adaptive footwear, offering laceless sneakers that make it easier for people with disabilities to wear. At the new Adidas store in Dubai, mannequins offer a mirror for shoppers with disabilities, with one featuring a prosthetic leg. “Adidas recognizes and supports the importance of inclusivity in all its forms,” says Amrith Gopinath, senior brand director at Adidas GCC. The brand believes that through sport and sportswear “we have the power to change lives,” says Gopinath. “That ethos is what we aim to reflect when working with inspirational individuals of different ethnicities, sizes, and disabilities.”

Designer Madeline Stuart walks the runway during her New York Fashion Week show. Photo: Getty Images

While adaptive brands are in their infancy in the Middle East, factors are noticeably developing. There are roughly 50 million people living with a disability in the region, and UAE high-street brand Splash has addressed this community by launching an adaptive fashion line for people of determination, including modifiable and adjustable garments. Meanwhile, Dareen Barbar, an above-the-knee amputee athlete from Lebanon, has been signed as an Adidas brand ambassador. “It is great that big brands are taking the step to change the game and make their fashion more inclusive to cater to every human being,” she says. “It is time to change the fact that beautiful clothes should only be worn by small-sized people, or perfectly shaped models; everyone is beautiful in their own way. Beauty shines through diversity and it comes in different shapes, sizes and colors.”

Photo: Courtesy of Fashion Baby

Dozens of up-and-coming adaptive clothing designers have personal stories behind their brands, which combine engineered pieces with functionality and style. After her son was born, Cooper had to undergo major abdominal surgery, and simply pulling on a pair of jeans was painful. Speaking to other mothers, she realized she wasn’t alone and set about changing the post-pregnancy fashion experience. Her company, I Am Denim, offers jeans with second skin waistband tummy control technology. People with all body types can benefit from her designs, whether they have C-section scars, are recovering from abdominal surgery, or have fluctuating weight. “The fashion industry needs to realize there is a real demand for inclusivity, and affordable, accessible stylish clothing,” she states.

Megami swimsuit. Photo: Courtesy

Other emerging brands include New York’s FFORA, with its wheelchair-attachable accessories; Chromat, also based in New York, that creates swimwear for all shapes, sizes, and abilities; and London-based undergarment and swimwear brand Megami, which makes items for women who have undergone mastectomies. “We believe that women who care about breast health should be able to shop in any store, not just specialty retailers. They should feel this equality and inclusivity in their shopping experience,” says Megami co-founder and creative director Sergey Bakin, one of the three men behind the company, who came up with the concept after the women they loved had breast cancer. Megami, meaning “woman goddess” in Japanese, creates elegant wire-free, full-coverage, breathable bras, so women who have experienced cancer can feel both “strong and feminine.” The company also uses post-surgery models in its runway shows. Another new brand bringing a fresh spin to urban wear while casting diverse bodies is Fashion Baby, designed and helmed by Lucas Portman, son of supermodel Natalia Vodianova. “When casting skaters for the Fashion Baby shoot in Uruguay, I stumbled upon Isabella Desseno,” the 19-year-old shares. “At first glance, I loved her look and style, but as I delved deeper and learned about her disability, I felt even more that she was a ‘Fashion Baby.’ I want to celebrate people with a strong message. Her message is to not let anything stand in your way of your passions and goals. That happens to also be my motto.”

Nike Go Flyease adaptive footwear. Photo: Courtesy

In recent years, in part due to viral responses on social media, the industry has witnessed a number of diverse models come into the frame. These include paralyzed Brazilian Paralympic tennis athlete Samanta Bullock; Madeline Stuart, a model with Down’s syndrome who has appeared on the runway at New York fashion week; Kelly Knox, who was born without part of her left arm and walks the runways at London and New York fashion weeks; and Marsha Elle, a congenital amputee with a prosthetic leg.

The new flagship Adidas store in The Dubai Mall. Photo: Courtesy

Any person, no matter her age or background, could one day find herself seeking out fashion that suits unconventional needs. All consumers can be allies for marginalized communities, demanding that loved brands become more genuine. Adaptive fashion doesn’t have a blueprint, and that’s what makes it so creative, experimental, and boundary-pushing.

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Originally published in the May 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

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