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Fashion has always been conceived as a shallow, insubstantial world only a few can be part of. There are some beauty and size standards to be met, which in most cases, are as unattainable as unreal. Currently, due to social movements, the conversation is opening up taking into account more diverse groups of people. Even if it’s seen as superficial, the truth is, we use fashion to express ourselves, to make a statement. We change clothes according to the impression we want to give and play toning it up and down depending on the occasion. However, for disabled people it’s not just a choice, it’s a reality that affects their quality of life.
People with a disability are part of the world’s largest minority group. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) fact sheet on disability and health, currently, 15% of the population, in order words, 1 billion people live with a disability. The WHO warns of the increase in disabled people due to demographic trends and the rise in chronic health problems, amid other causes. In spite of being a minority, we have to bear in mind, that anyone could end up being part of it.
One of the main challenges the group faces is the lack of representation in the public eye, the media and the fashion industry, among many others. Up until now, the relationship between fashion and disability revolved around the fabrication of adapted garments that allowed users to carry out daily tasks. Meaning, it was only based on functionality, forgetting the aesthetic aspect.
Luckily, brands are beginning to be aware of the problem and the market for adapted garments is growing, making it possible for disabled people to dress as they wish without sacrificing comfort.
Disability has many faces; some can be invisible at first, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Some health conditions associated with disability may result in poor health and exhaustive healthcare needs, others don’t. They encounter a range of barriers in almost every step they take, fashion shouldn’t be one.
The key to take into account adaptive clothing is knowledge, an area where the root of the problem lies. Thus, the group perceives a lack of awareness on the educational system. Victoria Jenkins, founder of the adaptive clothing brand Unhidden and part of the disabled minority herself, sees it as a huge problem: “It needs to become part of the curriculum.” On a positive note, she states that Open Style Lab in America and London College of Fashion are doing some work on it, starting with courses including adaptive design. “It would be great if it was covered as a topic in the general fashion education.”
This adds up to their main problem, reach. Her fashion brand is just staring, but before hers, there were many others in the market: “Everyone who was on my shoot last September said Unhidden was the first adaptive brand they ever heard of. I’m not the first, not by a very, very long margin.” She believes that if mainstream fashion brands started to implement pieces of adaptive clothing in their collections, people would normalize it and it wouldn’t be as shocking as it is right now.
As to how to make the fashion industry more inclusive, Victoria Jenkins claims: “Hire us, hire people with disabilities in your head offices, in your marketing department, research department… because we’re already in your demographics.” The truth is disabled people are part of every age and gender group and often feel unseen by companies. She adds that by including disabled people in the workforce, you’re futureproofing your brand: “We live in a capitalist world, if you want to look at it in terms of growth it’s supercharging your reach, add inclusive design. You’ll be tapping into 1 billion people who are not being served”.
Sustainability has opened a new door in the fashion industry. Besides stating loud and clear the environment problem fast – fashion is causing, it’s purpose also defends equality, equity and diversity in every shape. Nevertheless, the movement currently seems to be more focused on avoiding the creation of greenhouse gases and waste. Jenkins has felt there was another barrier when talking about adaptive fashion in the sustainable fashion community. She believes they could me more inclusive and diverse.
Anyway, that hasn’t stopped her from implementing sustainability in her brand. “We realized that was the way it had to be. If you’re starting from the ground as a fashion business in 2021 and, if you’re not trying to be sustainable what are you doing”, states. Their soon to be a year-old launch collection is made to order and designed with deadstock cloth or leftover fabric from companies that ordered excess. Besides, they are trying to go full in with their plastic – free packaging and tickets that can be planted.
Likewise, the designer is aware of the economic barrier some disabled people face. That’s why they are working on offering an adaptive alteration service, so that people can upcycle their existing clothes and reuse them again. “What people with disabilities want is to be able to shop the same brands as everybody else, they don’t really want their own brand,” she says.
This technique will also save tons of clothing of ending up in landfill and will employ disabled people. Jenkins remembers that she had to get rid of almost all her clothing when she was diagnosed. She kept some garments she really loved knowing that it would be impossible for her to wear the comfortably. Along the same line, Unhidden will record some of the adaptive alteration techniques as a workshop so that anyone interested in learning can watch it in the comfort of their home. The workshop will be free and re – watchable as many times as required.
Jenkins asks the fashion industry to, please, stop making excuses. Even though she acknowledges the baby steps the industry is taking, she hopes the emerging conversation inspires people to look into adaptive clothing. That it will lead to the normalisation of the use of adapted clothing and that we will see more disabled people on front pages, on catwalks, in the newsrooms… Because everyone deserves an opportunity, and everyone has the right to be stylish.
*All images courtesy of Victoria Jenkins, Unhidden Clothing.