Saturday 7 July 2018

When the pickings are slim a single jumpsuit feels like a miracle. The state of accessible fashion in Australia.

[Image: two smiling women wear pastel tie-dyed jumpsuits. The dark-haired woman at the rear of the frame is standing and wears cat ears. The blond-haired woman sitting is sitting in a wheelchair. source: ASOS]

Yesterday fashion juggernaut ASOS released a two-piece waterproof jumpsuit designed in conjunction with BBC reporter, para-athlete and wheelchair user, Chloe Ball-Hopkins. The cut of the pastel tie-dye extravaganza designed specifically with wheelchair users in mind. And at £50 ($AU89.42) a midrange price point not uncommon in general fashion.

And the internet exploded.

I too was excited to see the images and to discover that the item was designed with rather than for a disabled person. Even simply seeing the item modelled on a seated body was incredibly powerful in an industry where such images are rare. As UK blogger Shona Louise pointed out in a recent piece for Scope, clothes both in advertising images and on the mannequins that fill bricks and mortar stores use standing as the default body position to display clothing. This despite that fact, not only for those of us who use wheelchairs, but non-disabled people sit at work, when out for dinner, at a cafe, the movie theatre etc. And clothing that sits well on a standing body, does not always translate to sitting well on a seated body.

But it's hard to move past the underlying current that this single item is currently so rare in the international fashion landscape that disabled people are overwhelmed with joy at a single item that non-disabled consumers have long taken for granted.

While I applaud ASOS for the creation of this item and for the earlier inclusion of disabled model Mama Cax in their activewear campaign, I am also cognisant that this is a single item in the catalogue of a brand that includes tens of thousands of items. A range similar to the recently release Tommy Adaptive line by US brand Tommy Hilfiger would be far more welcome for its clear dedication to designing for a range of disabled bodies and different style needs rather than a one-off item. As my original excitement had worn off I find myself approaching this development with cautious optimism. While I hope that this potential represents ASOS's tentative attempt to clarify if a market exists and is financially viable (understandable at a business level); I am also reminded of the track record of many companies across multiple industries who fail to follow through once the original clicks and brand enhancement dies down.

Such rarity in inclusive designs within the industry is not uncommon. While there are brands specifically designing with disabled bodies in mind, even these represent a very tiny segment of the international industry. And as a recent article in The Guardian pointed out, there are currently more clothing labels for dogs than there are for disabled people.

At present, most of the adaptive clothing product range available through the Australian market give an impression of an afterthought. Choices are limited to shapeless, uninspiring designs that fail to understand the varying style choices of disabled people. Even accessing these items independently can be fraught with gate-keepers who don't expect disabled people to be purchasing these items themselves. Having purchased medical grade compression stockings both locally and from overseas companies, many interactions are paternalistic and disheartening. Overly complicated and the underlying theme from some distributors is that personal inquiring is somehow problematic and that it is preferable for them to deal with organisations rather than those who wear the products.

Whether the industry sees the inclusion of disabled people and adaptive and inclusive design as too hard, not financially viable, or they simply cannot envision disabled people enjoying fashion and the self-expression and creative aspects of clothing, or we are simply not on their radar, the result is the same. Little to no adaptive fashionable designs in the Australian industry and little to no disabled representation in fashion media. In a world of aspirational advertising, it would seem that visibly disabled bodies are thought to not meet the brief.

As a group, we have learned to adapt available clothing to our needs. We are resigned, if not also frustrated by, poor fit, uncomfortable seams, closures that aren't fit for purpose, and frequently a lack of style. We get clothes re-cut or adjusted or simply go for comfort over any desire to express ourselves through personal style. For some members of the community, it is others who make their clothing choices. With convenience and ease, a more prominent factor in purchasing choices. A quick scan of local suppliers of adaptive clothing reveals little choice and an expectation that such clothing is only of use to older age groups. Though even that design style seems to be stuck in out-dated ideas of what constitutes fashion for an older population. In addition, when organisations have been responsible for purchasing low cost takes preeminence over every other consideration. This disconnect between the end user and the manufacturer lends itself to a perception that fashion doesn't matter to disabled people when in truth it is a lack of choice that is problematic.

I've written previously about the inclusion of disabled models and fashion that has been seen overseas and it's hard to understand why the local industry has failed to jump on this underserved, and as is demonstrated by the reaction to the latest ASOS item, a sector of the community desperate for options and willing to spend.

Recent modelling puts the international inclusive fashion market at US$278.2 billion in 2018 and expected to rise to US$325.8 billion by 2022. With local fashion brands, including well-established brands closing their doors, looking to the inclusive fashion market as an option to expand the brand and increase revenue makes financial sense. With many purchases already being made online from overseas manufacturers, well made, inclusive fashion lines, along with the well-documented loyalty of disabled communities, could potentially provide not only new local markets but the ability to tap into an international market of approximately 1 billion people.

"Coresight Research estimates that the global market for adaptive apparel, accessories and footwear will total $278.2 billion in 2018 and grow to $325.8 billion by 2022 (our estimates are conservative because the World Health Organization’s figures do not include children with disabilities under the age of 15)."

Glasgow based Vanilla Blush is an example of a fashion brand understanding that style and the practicals of adaptive fashion aren't mutually exclusive and can be profitable. The lingerie and now swimwear (soon to also include activewear) brand run by Nicola Dames creates pieces for those living with a stoma. The brand now with an 80% profit margin and annual sales of £500,000 (AU$ 894,214.61) demonstrates what is possible when a designer recognises and understands their market. Their commitment also goes beyond products on the shelf to working with UK universities to understand the psychological impact these types of items have on the psychological well-being of those who use them. Similarly, Belgian-based brand INGA Wellbeing are working with another two UK universities, London College of Fashion to understand the effect clothing has on recovery from serious illness.

Both of these companies are demonstrating a genuine commitment to the population of consumers they serve and recognise that just because an item may represent a practical need the need for fashion doesn't evaporate. Instead, it becomes innovative. It can also have a profound effect on the mental wellbeing of thse who wear these pieces.

"You don’t have to be a fashionista to know that what you wear impacts how you feel about yourself. Yet, fashion is unrepresented in contemporary psychology.' - Dr Liza Morton

New York's Open Style Lab (OSL) is a model that Australian fashion design schools could learn from and implement. Established in 2014 OSL is dedicated to the development of fashionable clothing options for disabled people. They work with disabled people, occupational therapists and engineers to develop innovative fashionable clothing designs. The group aims to increase awareness of the need for accessible clothing, equipping their community with the skills to develop accessible designs and to develop and distribute designs and technology that will increase clothing accessibility. As reported in Vogue last year OSL take a leap to liaise with their clients and understand their needs. Although the report's headline suggests that they are designed for disabled clients, the reality is that the organisation employs a clear design philosophy of with; 

“We talked a lot about the user experience, asking clients what subway line they take, how they navigate New York City, and what their day involves, to [reinforce] that design is a holistic process.” One client wanted a formal jumpsuit for her frequent dinner parties and events; another needed a tailored jacket to wear to an upcoming wedding; and two asked for rain jackets." 

Liz Jackson's piece for the New York Times, also demonstrates the potential benefits brands would have in employing and collaborating with disabled people. The opportunities for innovation and a point of difference, both of which can secure a market niche, are elements such collaboration can bring. Living in a largely inaccessible world disabled people become natural innovators as we modify existing items or create new ones to be able to undertake tasks in our lives and this also translates to the clothing we wear.

At a time when many Australian fashion labels are closing their doors surely thinking outside the established box, a look to new markets makes logical financial sense. Add in the opportunity for innovative design that would serve all sectors of the community and the potential market opportunity increases further. As the aforementioned piece by Liz Jackson mentions, many items in general use in the community began their life as an innovative disability-related product. Accessibility be it within the fashion industry or other aspects of life enhances the experience of the whole population not just the disability comunity.

The first Australian fashion brand to demonstrate a genuine commitment to the disability community will tap into a largely underserved, and as the recent ASOS experience demonstrates, willing to spend, market.

If one jumpsuit can make the international disability community so excited imagine the buzz and financial potential that a complete line of adaptive clothing could create both here in Australia but also internationally.

It's time for the industry to step up and embrace innovation and inclusive design principals. To include us from the beginning of the design process, on the cutting room floor, on the catwalk and advertising, through to ensuring accessible shop fronts and change rooms. To do less will leave the industry behind and our dollars flowing to overseas brands who are actively engaging with the disability community.