It’s been some years since Tommy Hilfiger, IZaptive, Aerie and a few other other fashion brands bought something new to the industry, a long awaited response to the style and fashion needs of the disability community. Five years ago Tommy Hilfiger’s adaptive fashion line was an innovation that stood amongst what then represented as fashion for the disabled. The clothes were dreary, lacked style and focused only on the disability, not the person. In years since this line launched, more have followed his lead, opening their eyes and lending an ear to this community, realizing the potential of the untapped market, changing the way the fashion industry and society saw people with disabilities.
The disabled community is the largest minority simply because it encompasses all the others. According to WeThe15.org, people with disabilities are 15 percent of the world’s population,1.2 billion people, yet still so underrepresented in the media and underserved in various industries especially fashion and beauty. Some may say that the emergence of adaptive fashion means that that society is starting to recognize or rather see beyond the mobility devices and labels of a disability to the person. But is that truly the case?
As a wheelchair user who loves fashion I can tell you that there are some days when my disability doesn’t even factor in when I’m planning an outfit, other days it seems as if going in one direction solves one problem, but illuminates another. When it comes to shopping? That is another animal entirely. I may love a brand, but be unable to enter their stores, or buy an item, just to try it on at home and return if it doesn’t fit because the fitting room can’t fit my wheelchair. I have a dozen more stories where access and my love of fashion didn’t mesh and if you have a disability, I’m sure you do too.
Does the appearance of adaptive fashion change anything for the industry? Make them want to do what they can in order to make the clothes and the stores more inclusive? Some say yes, others say don’t be so quick to start cheering just yet.
Fashion Industry’s Front Lines: Fashion Brands & Retail Stores
According to one article published by Forbes earlier this year the disability community still has more fighting to do to get the fashion industry to be more authentically inclusive. The article states that several brands are venturing into the the adaptive fashion market, but not all of them understand that they must do more than simply simply create a product that makes are lives a little easier. Anna Haines, author of this article writes: “ Not only has Nike been criticized for not making the Go FlyEase—a shoe marketed as an “accessible solution”—accessible to the disabled community, they’ve also been scrutinized for their approach to representation. “Where Nike has room for improvement is in their storytelling,” says Maura Horton, chief community officer of JUNIPERunltd, an e-commerce and content platform for the disabled community. Mohammadian echoes Horton, “where they missed the mark was actually telling the story about it.” Rather than use their marketing campaign as an opportunity to showcase people with disabilities—namely Matthew Walzer, the young athlete with cerebral palsy from whom the shoe was inspired—Go FlyEase advertisements depicted able bodies engaged in active lifestyles.”
When I read this, I had one question. What was the point of creating the shoe then, just for the novelty of creating a hands- free shoe? Okay, you did something new, cool. However, it takes me longer as a person with a disability to put on a shoe than it does for abled-bodied person to do it. The point of adaptive fashion, as much as I wish would come up with a better term is, to make things easier for people with disabilities when they are shopping or getting dressed. There is absolutely no point in creating a product that would help if it was your style, only to market is as something else. In my opinion that just sends the message that they don’t see the importance of a product like this. If that’s the case I say, adaptive fashion is in its infancy compared to others, yes, but it’s not that hard to listen and learn. It’s 2021.
We’ve reached the point where brands are creating adaptive fashion lines or at least recognizing what they are missing out on by not doing so. Great there’s a supply, but many retail locations are not 100% accessible which means that although a company has products I may like, I have no way to see them in person before I buy them. The concept of seeing something in a display window or on a mannequin and buying it doesn’t work if people with disabilities can’t get inside.
Fashion Industry Behind The Scenes: Zebedee Management: For Models With Disabilities
When it comes to accessibility and inclusion in fashion, it’s about more than what’s a part of product lines and access to retail spaces. Inclusion also means the models that brands choose to wear their products, whether they have an accessible line or not.
Growing up I never saw models that looked like me in fashion magazines or on billboards, thanks to agencies like Zebedee Management, who signed their 500th model recently. This agency has worked with luxury brands such as Gucci, Fenty Beauty and of course Tommy Hilfiger, but that doesn’t mean the process has always been easy. According to a Vogue Business article written by Bella Webb on the talent agency and the strides it has made in the fashion industry, booking their clients’ jobs isn’t always simple especially when dealing with luxury brands. Cheeseman writes “ Despite gaining traction, Zebedee still struggles to get its models luxury fashion week bookings, which Johnson attributes to fear of getting representation wrong or being called tokenistic; and of venues and collections not being accessible. However, in the last year, fashion and beauty bookings gained traction, starting with high street and childrenswear brands, and slowly spreading to beauty. ‘Something shifted during the pandemic — we’re three times busier than last year in the UK and five times busier in the US,’ says Johnson.” The article goes on to explain more about how their process works, what makes Zebedee different, though it’s not the agency to represent models with disabilities and challenges the fashion industry to step up and not only recognize the power it holds in how society views people with disabilities, along with the entertainment industry, but to do something about it as well.
Inclusion and representation matter especially on a scale like this because growing up I did not see people that looked like me, if the fashion industry consciously does what it can to be more inclusive to those with disabilities then those of us part of the community now as well as those yet to come will be able to wear what we want to wear without some of the struggles that we currently face when putting outfits together. In addition to that, The fashion industry is it’s own platform, people will take notice of brands hiring models with disabilities. I can only hope that doing so more frequently on bigger stages such as fashion commercials will be a part of dispelling some of the misperceptions that society has about those of us with disabilities and with that, the members of this community can start to be seen as people, not the label of their disability.
The fashion industry is a big one, but it’s hardly the only one that needs to do more in terms of representation and inclusion when it comes to their products or services. The beauty industry is another big opportunity, While I won’t go into too much detail because this post would be way too long I will say that though I’ve seen a few beauty brands use people with disabilities as brand ambassadors, I’d hadn’t seen much more than that in terms of catering to the disability community.
Olay recently launched products with a new easy open lid, for them, this means a circular lid with a handle that seems like it acts as a stopper with braille on top of the lid. This is a game changer. I am looking forward to trying a product or two from Olay soon and testing out these lids for myself, because if you know me, there are times I struggle with opening containers like this, especially the sample jars. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for the brand and the beauty industry as a whole.
The bottom line is that yes the fashion and beauty industries have made efforts to be more inclusive with their products and representation, but the fact is they are so far from done. This will be a process that needs to continue over time. As someone who can only benefit from these changes I’m excited to see what the fashion and beauty industries create next and I’m look forward to seeing the effect it has on the industries around them and society as whole. Like I said before, in doing so, maybe one day, people with disabilities may be looked at as more than their disabilities in all industries from fashion & beauty, to entertainment, to the world of work, to health and fitness, and everything in-between.
What do you think is next in adaptive fashion? Let’s discuss it in the comments.