According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are over two billion disabled people in the world; approximately 25% of the world's population. When narrowing the scope of focus, large populations of countries as different as India or the US reflect these numbers. A 2018 survey conducted by the US Census Bureau and the CDC accounted for 61 million adults with disabilities. Put otherwise, one in every four American adults has some disability. Despite its size, the number of services catering to this population is surprisingly negligible, fashion representing one of those critical sectors.
Adaptive clothing, a category which was defined barely a decade ago, is specially designed for those with chronic conditions and disabilities. The garments can feature a plethora of components adapted to the needs of the differently-abled, from small details - such flat seams to minimize skin irritation, or using velcro and magnets instead of zippers and buttons - to more technical upgrades like front-open and rear-closure designs that make clothing more comfortable to use. Yet, beyond the vital functionality of adaptive clothing, there is also a demand for styles that are also fashion-forward, a shift that has been largely ignored by most major brands; particularly by higher-end labels. While more mainstreams companies such as Asos, Target, Nike, and Tommy Hilfiger have commercialized garments that cater to this population, the demand for professional, fashion-forward styles was largely unmet, until recently.
The last year has marked a radical change, both in the general public's awareness of this segment, with celebrity activists such as Sinéad Burke and Selma Blair demonstrating that style and disability are not mutually exclusive. In the way, companies are strategically considering the differently-abled. Progressive evolution of mentality has been essential in shifting this paradigm, but there are also more tangible reasons at play. According to Coherent Market Insights, for instance, the global market for adaptive clothing is expected to grow from $279 billion in 2017 to $400 billion by 2026, and according to Lyst, web searches for garments geared towards people with disabilities increased by 80% in 2019.
This consumption increase, paired with marketing focused on dispelling stereotypes, has recently led to the emergence of fashion brands specifically designing for people with disabilities - a rise which in turn reflects a newfound awareness of inclusive design. Last summer, a new accessory brand called FFORA surfaced. Founded by Parsons' graduate Lucy Jones, whose thesis collection for disabled people landed her on the Forbes 30-Under-30 list, the NYC-based brand came into existence as a means to address issues of design bias. The new inclusive label, which focuses on creating lines specifically for wheelchair users, has already launched various products including leather bags, minimalist attachments for mobility aids, and lifestyle products.
Similarly, Kintsugi, a new brand which was born in reaction to design bias, has been creating useful and accessible apparel exclusively for disabled customers. Based in Manchester, Kintsugi - which draws its name from the Japanese art form of repairing broken pottery - recently joined the developing adaptive fashion market, offering wardrobe essentials from skirts to tops, and outerwear.
As existing brands have begun to rethink design-centred on disabilities, it's become evident that further tailoring and specific modifications are required. Mainstream labels have neglected to consider the comfort factor and accessibility of their clothes for all bodies. EveryHuman, a disability-inclusive online retailer that launched last December, intentionally on the International Day of People with disability aims to close this gap between functionality and fashion.
Marketing in the same way a 'traditional brand' would, EveryHuman secured Paralympian final medalists as brand ambassadors in 2020 and has centred its strategy around design clothing enabling people with disabilities to dress with style and independence. It recently launched its A/W range, a full collection - including jeans and boots - which features subtle and considerate design adjustments such as buttons with magnetic closures, elasticated waists, one-handed zipper shoes that support ankle and foot braces, and higher backs on pants to cater to a long-term seated position.
As inclusive brands surfaced around the globe, Alexandra Herold, the founder and CEO of Patti + Ricky, saw an opportunity for a carefully curated digital department store, which resulted in the creation of an online adaptive fashion marketplace. Carrying and creating items for both invisible and visible disabilities, the brand manages a team of 85 designers. Acting as a one-stop-shop, Patti + Ricky offers a large selection of inclusive women's, men's, and children's fashion, but also accessories, art supplies, books and crafts tailored to people with disabilities.
A pioneering move by Patti+Ricky was to add a lingerie section on the site, a category which is often disregarded by labels when it comes to people with disabilities. A blind spot that London-based lingerie brand Elba also took notice of. The new label, which also launched last year, patented a concealed magnetic closure and focused on front-fastening bras for women with difficult dressing and limited mobility.
A few luxury labels like Christian Siriano have also begun to focus on stylish, effortless dressing, with plans to explore similar lines shortly, but the room for growth in this sector is essential. While the mass end of the market is now better covered and smaller independent brands continue to emerge to meet niche needs, there is still significant whitespace for premium and luxury brands to promote and further the existing technical knowledge.