Last Saturday night, halfway through London fashion week, a handful of models walked and rolled down the catwalk. Among them were British actors Adam Pearson who has neurofibromatosis and the Years and Years star Ruth Madeley, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair – and the brand showing its wares? British adaptive clothing specialist Unhidden.
Unhidden specialises in clothing for people with and without visible, as well as non-visible disabilities – and this season it showcased clothing made for three body types: short stature, seated and ambulatory.
The collection channelled the 1970s with rich jewel tones, three-piece suits and asymmetric, wide-leg jumpsuits with practical adaptive features such as strategic fastenings, detachable seams and non-restrictive fabrications. The Instagrammer Petrina Barber, who uses a colostomy bag, wore wide-legged berry coloured cropped trousers with a black crop top. Her standard beige colostomy bag? Replaced by a silver glittery version.
While designers such as Sinead O’Dwyer and Collina Strada have been praised for casting disabled models, including wheelchair users, in recent shows, research has found that despite representing 24% of the population, models with visible disabilities feature in only 0.02% of fashion campaigns.
“It’s no wonder so many people feel either ostracised or underrepresented,” says Adam Pearson. “I don’t see myself in any advertising.”
Adaptive fashion designed specifically with disabled customers in mind – and including features such as velcro, zips and magnets – is only a burgeoning fashion market, but one which mainstream brands are slowly beginning to show more interest in.
As a chronically ill person, my life has been made better by adaptive products created for the home, but when it comes to my body, the options are scarce. My conditions, ME and fibromyalgia, fluctuate and I dress for comfort day-to-day, preferring natural fibres, stretch materials and elasticated waistbands to alleviate unwanted pressure. I often alter my own clothes to be more accessible, even if it’s simply cutting out care labels so they don’t irritate my skin and trigger pain symptoms. However, like many disabled people, I make compromises based on affordability and the desire to partake in wider trends.
According to the charity Scope, one in four people in the UK have a disability. By pension age, that figure rises to 45%. Research into “the purple pound” also estimates the potential spending power of disabled people and their households to be £274bn per year for UK businesses alone.
Earlier this month, during New York fashion week, Victoria’s Secret made its debut at the Runway of Dreams show,showcasing its first Adaptive Intimates collection, which featured bras with magnets instead of a hook-and-eye closures and buckles to adjust shoulder straps. Also on the catwalk were adaptive fashion lines from Tommy Hilfiger and Target.
Off-catwalk, there are a string of independent designers specialising in adaptive wear such as Elba London which makes front fastening bras and Chamiah Dewey – creator of the UK’s first fashion brand for people with dwarfism or a short stature.
Unhidden was founded by Victoria Jenkins in 2016. A garment technologist turned disabled designer, she has worked for a range of high street and luxury brands including Victoria Beckham. Unhidden now caters to a wide range of disabilities, with special consideration for those who may be undergoing hospital treatment to enable dignified dressing. Historically, those with health requirements would be limited to medicalised products devoid of any aesthetic consideration.
Most recently it launched its first capsule collection with Lucy & Yak, a Brighton-based brand whose colourful dungarees are hugely popular with millennials and Gen Z.
Jenkins and her team reworked and upcycled items (including said dungarees) to make them more adaptive. Not only does this mean reducing fashion waste, but, as Jenkins explains, it gives brands without disability awareness an opportunity to trial-run adaptive collections by outsourcing the work to experts without the risk and fear of “getting it wrong”.
Jenkins is aware of this. “This is phase one,” she says. “The hope is, if it sells well, which they have been, then next time we would build it in from the beginning [of the design process].”
“Disabled founders invariably are the ones running adaptive fashion brands,” Jenkins adds. “And we really struggle to get financing. If we can partner with bigger brands then we can scale and grow. It also means you can tap into the fact that the disabled community want to shop where everybody else does.”
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