As the fashion industry reckons with consumers demanding more sustainable and transparent practices, another overlooked demographic within the $1.7 trillion market is starting to gain momentum, with adaptive clothing.
In early September, members of the spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) community met with Open Style Lab (OSL), an adaptive fashion collective, and Genentech, a biotechnology company, to put on the first-ever fashion show with start-to-finish SMA involvement. SMA is a neuromuscular disease that can impair walking, dexterity and strength, which can make certain clothing inaccessible.
The runway show debuted right before New York Fashion Week kicked off and was called Double Take, because “to see people with disabilities occupying a space that’s often shut off to them” would make audiences do — well, a double take.
“Regardless of disability or not, fashion is a form of self-expression and self-esteem,” Michael Dunn, senior director of marketing at Genentech, told In The Know. “That’s why we want people to do a double take: For the individualistic style of the [models].”
Each of the 11 models who walked the show collaborated with OSL designers — some of whom have disabilities themselves — to create one-of-a-kind, high-fashion looks that catered to their specific needs without sacrificing personal taste. One young model, Céline Domalski, who is 4 years old, had a silver dress with expandable side panels and extra fringe to add length, so the dress could “grow with her” to combat the “disability tax” — the extra expenses that are common with adaptive clothing.
Over 1 billion people in the world live with some form of disability, but there is still major unmet demand for adaptive clothing within the fashion world. Vogue reported that Mindy Scheier, founder of the Runway of Dreams Foundation, said that the process of creating an adaptive line is “the exact same,” as far as costs are concerned, as “any other collection.”
“Disabled people constitute the largest minority group in the world, yet are the most underserved and underrepresented,” disability activist Keely Cat-Wells, told Forbes in 2021. “If one does not design for accessibility, it is as if you’re telling every fourth person that comes through your door that you don’t want their business.”
“Adaptive fashion doesn’t have to be not stylish,” the model and actress Sawsan Zakaria told In The Know backstage. “I think that’s where a lot of adaptive fashion is right now — now, we’re bringing glamor into the mix.”
Zakaria, who has modeled on runaways before, collaborated with OSL fellow Jenna Dewar to create a one-piece halter catsuit with a custom-made chainmail belt and matching boots, all in Zakaria’s favorite color.
“We talked to them about how they wanted to feel,” Dewar explained about the design process. “Sawsan really wanted to feel very sexy and glamorous, so we really pushed that angle.”
Dewar was also responsible for singer James Ian’s look: a pink suit with a howling wolf made out of beadwork on the back, as an homage to his successful career.
“James — he is a rock star,” Dewar said. “So we wanted him to feel like a rock star.”
Ian, who has dexterity issues, worked with Dewar to ensure that his jacket would have hidden magnetic front closures instead of buttons, to eliminate the challenge of fastening them.
“[Dewar] just went beyond what I thought it would be and made it beautiful,” Ian said of his suit. “I’m through the roof about it.”