Designer Alexander McQueen once said, “Fashion should be a form of escapism and not a form of confinement.” Over the years, clothing and other accessories have been continually medicalized and had this sterile feel that helped ostracize the disabled community and them to a cultural wasteland where style and fashion have never been part of the nomenclature of the disability experience. But within the last decade, the cultural zeitgeist has really shifted as the advent of adaptive clothing took hold and began to flourish. We are in a moment where form and function have been amplified and the value of the world’s largest minority plays a significant role in true culture change.
However, it’s important to note that design is only one element in the rise of this adaptive revolution. Her ability to transform begins with the notion that adaptive fashion is at the intersection of economics, representation and a new potential for brand growth that will impact the entire industry and deliver significant benefits on multiple fronts. It is important for those in the industry to emphasize the far-reaching implications that this cultural shift can have in order to chart a course in understanding the true value of the “Nothing Without Us” maxim.
When we think of fashion, ideas and words like spectacle, beauty and even exclusivity may come to mind. Yet in the world of adaptive fashion, the lines that separate us seem to be dissolving through the highly inclusive nature of their intent. The insight is that fashion can be accessible through creativity and design across the full range of human variability. Yet even as adaptive fashion trendlines continue to rise, the power of the spectacle is not waning. As we saw on the runways at New York and London Fashion Week, adaptive clothing is being hailed as a burgeoning category making its mark in the annals of style. In New York, Genentech sponsored its first-ever fashion show called “Double Take” to engage with the Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) community. This show showcased a range of adaptive clothing designed to accommodate different body types and disabilities. All of the models on the show had some form of SMA and were shown either walking or rolling down the runway to emphasize the power of self-expression. New York also underscored the acceleration of the adaptive fashion revolution at the now-returning event, the Runway of Dreams Foundation show. What makes this show unique is that it offers a glimpse into the awareness and growth of where adaptive fashion is and where it’s going. Recognizable brands such as Kohls, JC Penney and adidas, among others, are pitching their businesses in this space, recognizing that a $400 billion adaptive apparel market is a key vertical in the future of their business strategy.
With the evolving economic realities and social vision of adaptive fashion evolving on the world’s catwalks and the ubiquity of social media platforms, what is the collective impact of adaptive fashion on the disability community? It can be argued that the rise of adaptive fashion is a recipe for addressing issues such as social mobility. The space’s growth is not just limited to the larger brands, but is a cradle of entrepreneurship where creatives with disabilities can define their paths and help shape a future economic reality. This coming February, London-based designer Victoria Jenkins and her company Unhidden will unveil their new collection of adaptive fashion in collaboration with Paralympic swimmer Will Perry. Jenkins, who became disabled in her mid-20s, said she was inspired at the hospital by a fellow patient who not only wanted to find clothes that were beautiful, but also ones that fit the needs of her changing body. Jenkins is an example of the resurgence of entrepreneurs and designers with disabilities who recognize the value of adaptable fashion to society at large, but offer growth where there is potential for upskilling. Adaptive fashion opens the doors for a new talent pool to develop skills from the technical sides like textiles and design to marketing and brand development.
It’s time to see all the tributaries that adaptive mode can offer. By providing both new market opportunities and job creation opportunities, the disability community can become a more active participant in a new business sector. Ultimately, adaptive fashion is not a trend, but a real necessity that every brand, big or small, has to deal with.