Adaptive Clothing: How to Design Apparel for an Overlooked Market

Adaptive Clothing: How to Design Apparel for an Overlooked Market | MakersValley Blog
Anna Palagano

Anna Palagano

Think about how you get dressed. You button up a shirt, slide on pants, zip up a jacket. Dressing is second nature for most people, but not for all. Imagine zipping up a jacket with only one hand; pulling up pants without standing; or needing to access your stomach by cutting holes in your shirts.

People with disabilities face these struggles, and they find themselves excluded by inaccessible clothing designs despite being the largest marginalized group of American consumers. One in four people in the United States identify as disabled. Fifteen percent of the world’s population do too.

Adaptive fashion has been on the rise with companies ranging from independent to mainstream brands implementing accessible designs, yet the fashion industry and brands have a long way to go. 

What Is Adaptive Fashion?

A group of disabled kids togetherImage from Kohls

Adaptive fashion is clothing designed to make it accessible for disabled people and aging populations to dress themselves independently, wear their clothes comfortably, and work with any medical equipment they need, all while still being fashionable. Adaptive clothing is not new, but it is a growing market where customers are ready to spend. According to Vogue Business, the adaptive clothing market will be worth 400 billion dollars by 2026. While this market segment leaves a lot of room open for new clothing lines, some existing clothing lines already exemplify how to serve the disabled community through accessibly designed clothing. Fashion brands looking to expand or launch into the adaptive clothing space can learn important lessons following the successes and failures of other clothing brands in this space: 

Assess Already Existing Technology

Creating an adaptive clothing line can be overwhelming to start because there exist various ways to make clothing adaptable for people with a wide range of diverse needs and abilities. It takes ingenuity, problem solving, and empathy. Thankfully, some simple to implement garment design innovations have already  furthered apparel accessibility. Some examples include: 

  • Magnetic or velcro closures to replace zippers and buttons – These better accommodate variances in wearer muscle strength and make getting dressed easier for wearers who have the ability to only use one hand.
  • Tagless clothes – This relieves some irritation for people who have hypersensitivities.
  • Discrete flaps to the stomach – This allows wearers to more easily access feeding tubes.
  • Jeans with stretch – This type of garment facilitates all day wear.

With the many ways for adaptive clothing products to help customers, your brand or product can make a name for itself by focusing on a specific niche. Take the examples of these business owners who launched a shoe brand to serve a particular need – Anodyne Shoes are created to fit the needs of diabetic customers through extra cushioning and room to alleviate symptoms like swelling. Billy Footwear assists another niche by providing shoes with a zipper that runs along the side to the toe, which allows the top to flip open, making it easier for people with mobility issues to put their foot in.

Center Disabled People in Product Design and Marketing

Nike's Go FlyEase sneakers

Image from Nike

The key to best serving an underserved market is to thoroughly understand them. Especially if your staff designers lack firsthand experience. While tapping into resources like focus groups, conferences, and relevant healthcare experts is crucial, the main goal of your adaptive line should be to center people with disabilities in all aspects of product creation, including design and marketing. This will allow your brand to create apparel that is truly accessible and inclusive. 

Unfortunately, brands haven’t always followed this principle in marketing their products to disabled people. Nike’s marketing choices around their Go FlyEasy sneaker exemplifies controversial adaptive apparel marketing. 

The Go FlyEasy sneaker was a timeless shoe design that used a rubber band to create a hinge. This allowed the wearer to simply step into the shoe, which would then straighten out to secure the foot. When the wearer wanted to take the shoe off, they could easily stand on the heel and pull their foot out. Despite how this shoe and the rest of the Nike FlyEasy shoe designs remarkably improved accessibility, they chose not to market it for disabled people. The word “disabled” was even omitted from the campaigns marketing the product, instead replaced with euphemisms like “adaptive athlete” instead of “disabled athlete”.

While Nike’s footwear design itself was a success, their marketing failure caught more headlines than their remarkable shoe design. Instead of being celebrated, the design received criticism for not acknowledging the disabled community. Their strategy in selling this product directly conflicted with the disabled community’s desire for visibility and removing stigma from the term “disabled”.  

The debut of this product also encountered other problems thanks to its limited release and high price tag. This again was at odds with the realities of the shoe’s target disabled customer, many of whom are more likely to fall into a more disadvantaged socioeconomic bracket. Furthermore, the limited release resulted in product buy outs and price gauged reselling online, putting the adaptive shoe even further out of reach of its most likely target customers.

Avoid Inspiration Exploitation

Companies also need to be careful of Inspiration Exploitation otherwise known as “inspiration porn” – using disabled people as inspiration more so to make an audience feel good but resulting in the dehumanization of a group of people. Typically, this trope involves depicting disabled people doing ordinary activities as “inspirational” or captioning an image of them doing an activity with “what’s your excuse”. It’s great to have a company story and a specific vision for your brand, but branding goals for an adaptive apparel lines should center on validating people with disabilities rather than uplifting the spirits of non-disabled people.

For instance, it was a big step when the FTL Moda fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Fall 2015 featured models with disabilities on the runway, sporting designs by Antonio Urzi. However, critics pointed out that just because a person with disabilities wore an article of clothing on the catwalk does not mean it was adapted for them. Clothing brands like Zapas also came under fire for using disabled models to show off their adaptive fashion line because they did not consult any disabled people in the project. These are examples of prioritizing the guise of inspirational and inclusivity over the needs of accommodation. 

Many misconceptions surround people with disabilities. One of which is that they don’t want to be fashionable or that they don’t care about their looks. They, like all fashion customers, desire the dignity to dress and express themselves as they wish. Advancements in adaptive fashion can allow this. The fashion industry has been an exclusive and ablest place for too long, and the innovations of brilliant designers and brands can make it more inclusive, high performing, and responsive to the needs of the modern fashion consumer – regardless of ability.


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