Kate McKenzie

Fashion Failure to Fashion Fame – Designing for People with Disabilities

The Problem:

All too often people facing mobility challenges or physical disabilities have few options when it comes to fashion.  In the past this population was brushed off as a niche market by the fashion industry and seen as impossible to mass produce successfully.  However, the fashion industry is beginning to realize that all of us face mobility issues or health concerns sooner or later.  How can we create better design and better technologies to allow us all to remain active, look good and have dignity in the choices we can make around what we wear?

Solution 1: Revolutionizing Prohibitive Styles

Stephanie Thomas knows from personal experience what it is like to live with a non-severe disability.  She has lived with missing digits on her right hand and foot which meant finding fashions that didn’t require buttons.  For the last 20 years she’s followed clothing trends for people with disabilities and came to the realization that “pet’s continue to have more clothing options than people with disabilities, especially those with seated body types.”

“People with disabilities are fashion customers,” states Stephanie “and every fashion customer should be able to dress with dignity and independence.” Using the Disability Fashion Styling System she developed in 2004 she created and curated a ‘Spring Lookbook’  for her blog Cur8able featuring amazing designs for people of all abilities.

“According to United Nations Enable, there are approximately 1 billion people living with disabilities, making it  the largest minority group in the world. Having an understanding of people with disabilities will help dispel myths that continue to plague our world and impact the way fashion customers with disabilities are treated.  If we change the perception of the fashion customer with disabilities, we can change the entire fashion industry,” states Thomas.

Solution 2: 16 Year Old Couldn’t Tie His Shoes – Now He Doesn’t Have To

When Mark Parker, Nike CEO, heard that Jeff Johnson, Nike’s first employee had a stroke and became non functional on one side he realized that they needed to design shoes differently. Jeff encouraged Nike to think about how shoes could be designed for all ability levels. Tobie Hatfield, Nike Designer took this one step further realizing that they needed to design shoes with easier entry and exit because “Eventually we all become less able.”

But the innovation didn’t stop there.  This year Nike was faced with a new challenge presented from Matthew Walzer. Matthew has worn Nike shoes all his life, his favourite being LeBron Zoom Soldier 6’s since they provide him the ankle support he needs to walk. Matthew has cerebral palsy and as a result has limited use of one of his hands.  “At 16 years old, I am able to completely dress myself, but my parents still have to tie my shoes. As a teenager who is striving to become totally self-sufficient, I find this extremely frustrating, and at times, embarrassing.” Hatfield was inspired by Matthew’s story and his letter where he wrote

“Bill Bowerman said it best, ‘If you have a body you are an athlete.’ I believe everyone, no matter what their physical, economic, or social circumstances may be, deserves to call themselves an athlete, and deserves to have a sense of freedom and independence.”

So this year Nike launched a brand new design, the LeBron Flyease that uses an innovative zipper design to make it possible to put the shoe on using only one hand. “I just felt this wave of independence that I’ve never felt before,” said Matthew. Nike has successfully demonstrated that good design can both meet the needs of a smaller community and have mass appeal.

Solution 3: Recreating a sense of Self

Until recently, prosthetic limbs have been made of bulky plastic and often created chaffing for the wearer.  Because of their expense prosthetics were replaced infrequently and offered little in terms of specialization.  Industrial designer Scott Summit, the founder of Bespoke Innovations, has taken fashion to a new level by incorporating it into prosthetic limbs. Using 3D printers, Scott is able to exactly mirror the wearer’s other limb and produce a much more stylized and personalized prosthesis. By involving the amputees themselves in the design process, Scott has been able to incorporate unique materials that showcase the wearer’s personality and taste.

Requests have ranged from a woman who wanted to wear cocktail dresses and still feel beautiful about the curves of her body. The result was a prothesis that resembled fish-net stockings that would match her other leg.  Another client was an avid motorcyclist so Scott designed a prosthesis that would blend with the chrome of the bike! Yet another client wanted his prosthetic leg to be more practical for playing soccer. The result was a leg that performed better athletically and enabled him to feel that his leg was no longer his main defining feature. Scott recalls that when he reached down to touch his leg for the first time he said “I haven’t felt that shape in 8 years.” It was at that point that Scott realized “it wasn’t just that we were creating something that looks cool, we’re recreating a sense of self.”

Solution 4: Fashionably Effective Acessories

heavy-braceletsPreviously those facing tremors due to multiple sclerosis would be advised to wear wrist weights to help control tremors in their arms.  However, designer Hanna Mawbey has created a beautiful alternative.  By creating heavy bracelets, the wearer can now choose whether or not to disclose their condition to others.



Solution 5 – Inhale in Style

As a former Physical Education teacher I know how hard it is to remind students to bring their inhalers to school.  Many teens feel embarrassed by their inhaler or don’t like how it looks.  However, when they ‘forget’ it and then have an asthma attack it becomes an emergency.

Enter onto the scene Ilwhan Ahn of IAHN Designs.  He is a product designer who graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he was a Merit Scholar. He wanted to create a design that young people would be attracted to and that would be easily portable. He came up with this design. 6.+Asthma+Inhaler

My personal favourite design has a little more bling. Definitely wouldn’t leave this beauty at home!




Because I couldn’t resist.  Here’s one final solutionary, Canadian, Izzy Camilleri. She began dressing people like Angelina Jolie but now Izzy has found a new passion – IZ Adaptive, a clothing line designed for people in wheelchairs. Her work has been honoured by both the Royal Ontario Museum and the Costume Society of America who have both recognized her as a pioneer in adaptive clothing.

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