Accessibility March 10, 2021
Meet the innovators determined to democratize fashion globally
The global fashion industry was worth nearly US$527.1 billion in 2020 and the number of people with disabilities worldwide is well over one billion. Given the fashion industry’s economic power and the sheer numbers of disabled people, big brands should be doing much more. Many young innovators with disabilities are out to address this gap and they shared their learnings at a webinar hosted by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
In 1996, Billy Price was in college when he was paralyzed from the chest down after a fall down three storeys. Billy lost the ability to move much of his body and daily tasks he took for granted like putting on clothes became much harder. One thing that always eluded him was shoes. He wanted a pair that looked good and that he could wear independently.
“The challenge was fitting my foot into my shoe and there was nothing in the market that was accessible”, Price shared out at a recent webinar called Learning from the Innovators, hosted by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Inc. (CFDA). “It was a matter of looking at it with a lens of someone with a disability and that was my own lens. I looked at traditional shoes to figure out a way to modify them.”
That led Price to co-found BILLY Footwear, which focuses on shoes that embody universal design, meaning they both appeal to and work for everyone. BILLY Footwear combines fashion with function with zippers that go along the side of the shoes and around the toe, allowing the upper of each shoe to open and fold over completely. This way the user can place his or her foot onto the shoe footbed unobstructed. With a tug on the zipper-pull the shoe closes and secures overtop the user’s foot. “It was so moving when I put my feet in my shoes again and this idea continued to catch momentum”, adds Price, who was clear that he wanted to create a design that would work for everyone.
Designing for ALL
Apart from Price, the CFDA webinar featured prominent designers like Kaycee Marshall, Adriana Mallozzi, Jovana Mullins, Ryan Hudson-Peralta, and Qaysean Williams. The webinar was organised by CFDA as part of its Adaptive Fashion series in partnership with Runway of Dreams and Gamut Management. This webinar, like the others in the series, was hosted by Mindy Scheier, founder of Runway of Dreams, which works towards a future of inclusion, acceptance, and opportunity in the fashion industry for people with disabilities. Scheier also created Gamut Talent Management to represent people with disabilities and create a marketplace where businesses and industries can connect to this target audience.
Starting off the session was Jovana Mullins, Co-Founder & CCO, Alivia, a brand that is winning laurels for focusing on sustainable fashion and employing people with autism in the design process. Mullins said it was high time that people stopped calling this approach innovative.
“Honestly I think it’s insane that our industry has not embraced people with disabilities on the design side. Our whole brand is built on true expression and showcasing the talents and abilities that people with disabilities have and breaking down the boundaries that society has. We hope that we will inspire other brands to look at people with disabilities for what they can do”. Towards this, Alivia has partnered with three artists on the autism spectrum for one of their collections. “Many people on the autism spectrum often don’t communicate the way others do and art is their main vehicle for showcasing their personality. We wanted to bring that forth and inspire people who buy our garments”, she said.
People with disabilities, believes Adriana Mallozzi, are natural designers. “They have to adapt on the fly on a consistent basis as the world is not designed for us. They are the best innovators because of that”. Adriana is the founder of QUIRK LAABS and the creator of Puffin, a mouth operated foot for people with disabilities with limited upper limb mobility. This is completely wireless and completely portable so you could be in bed or lounging in a beach chair and still have access to your mobile devices. “If you have access to your mobile devices, you have access to the world”, she says.
Ryan Hudson Peralta, well-known speaker and advocate who was born without arms and legs started designing and modifying even as a kid. As the founder of Look Mom No Hands, he has been spreading the word of positive thinking for over three decades. “We figure things out and we do that every day.” Peralta is currently in talks with a luxury brand for designing adaptive fashion. “The best adaptive fashion is one that works for everyone, not just for people with limited mobility or without arms and legs. The best products that I use is the Bluetooth headset and the bidet toilet seat and those weren’t designed for people with disabilities in mind, but they work for everyone and that’s what I want to with my clothing design”.
Disabled people are natural designers
Products that are developed or exist for people with disabilities can make the world better, emphasized Scheier, and it is important for the world to see that. Scheier’s career path as a designer took a new direction when her son Oliver, who has a rare form of muscular dystrophy that causes physical disabilities, wanted to wear jeans to school like his friends. She used her background in design to adapt a pair that not only met his needs but increased his confidence. She soon realized that millions of people around the globe were also struggling to access fashionable clothing. Learning from the population, whether you are disabled or not, is critical, she believes.
Independent fashion designer Kaycee Marshall, featured on NBC “The TODAY Show” for her adaptive clothing collection for women in wheelchairs, tapped into the disabled community for inputs. Kaycee has scoliosis and uses a wheelchair and the experience taught her just how diverse the needs of people with disabilities are. “The disability community is so diverse just like the wheelchair community and I had to tap into people in the community, their experiences to design the collection. I don’t have dexterity issues, so I learned the issues people had with zippers or hemming their pants for instance. I definitely got to learn a lot from the community”.
Also present at the session was celebrated designer Qaysean Williams, also known as the Real-Life Manikin, who hopes to be a beacon of light to show people that they can wear haute couture garments just like anyone else and make them as well. “That motivates me and everything I do is conformation that disability is a super ability and an opportunity to do things different from the norms”
Establishing a connect with the community, says Price is vital. “Our brand started with a personal need, but our eyes opened so wide, and we realized there was a major gap in the marketplace. The innovation happened when we connected with the audience. Being able to connect and hear their testimonies allowed us to better the product and help serve the needs better”.
The number of people with disabilities worldwide is well over one billion and given the fashion industry’s economic clout, big brands need to realise that inclusion is good business and that people with disabilities must be included at every stage – starting with design right up to marketing.
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