Taking into account the milieu of diverse markets that retailers target to capture, one market that not many are really looking at, but which has a huge potential, is the ‘adaptive clothing’ segment for people with special needs. According to the World Bank, one billion people (15% of the world’s population) experience some form of disability, with one-fifth (between 110 million and 190 million people) experiencing significant disabilities. In fact, if consumer trends are anything to go by, people with disabilities are the “world’s fastest-growing minority”. However, sadly the clothes being offered to them are highly uninspiring and basic…but things are set to change as some mainline retailers enter the fray.
Factors such as the ageing population, and medical advancements that help people survive disease and injury could mean that this market will continue to grow. Significantly, while fashion is a US $ 1.2 trillion global industry, with more than US $ 250 billion spent annually on fashion in the United States, to date, very little of that money has focused on the needs of people with disabilities. Mainline retailers have largely ignored the segment, though there is a growing interest from young designers.
Tommy Hilfiger is a pioneer in this market, having collaborated with adaptive fashion-focused organization, Runway of Dreams to develop products for consumers who have disabilities that make it difficult for them to dress-up on their own. In February last year, Tommy Hilfiger launched a special kids line, similar to its existing children’s collection, except that the pieces were modified to make it easier for kids with disabilities to wear the same fashion as their peers. This has been made possible by the use of magnets instead of difficult buttons and zippers, adjustable waistbands as well as sleeve and pant lengths, and alternative ways to put the pieces on.
The latest collection from the brand introduced recently is a line of 37 styles for men and 34 for women which include shirts, pants, jackets, sweaters, and dresses. The button-down shirts have buttons and cuffs that fasten with magnets, pants, including chinos and denim jeans, feature magnetic flies and zippers and adjustable hems to accommodate leg braces and orthotics. They also have pull-on loops inside of waistbands for easy wearability. “Inclusivity and the democratization of fashion have always been at the core of my brand’s DNA,” said Tommy Hilfiger, the Founder of the iconic brand in a statement adding, “These collections continue to build on that vision, empowering differently abled adults to express themselves through fashion.”
Mindy Scheier, the Founder of Runway of Dreams, does not want to stop with just one collection. Scheier founded Runway when she was unable to find a fashionable pair of jeans for her son, who uses leg braces as a result of muscular dystrophy. Armed with a new mission, Scheier, a former designer, set out to bring adaptive fashion into the big leagues. When she discussed about her idea with Tommy Hilfiger, the fashion giant was almost immediately on-board and has even proved to be profitable. “The impact has been fantastic,” says Gary Sheinbaum, CEO of Tommy Hilfiger Americas, on the Hilfiger website. “We’ve had customers purchasing from almost all 50 states and in the first quarter, two of our top six selling styles on tommy.com were from this collection. In fact, 20 percent of our kids’ business was driven by this special capsule.”
Taking cue from this initiative, others are gearing up to follow. After a very successful effort to update its private label apparel and home goods with Cat & Jack last year, which has surpassed the US $ 2 billion mark to be one of Target’s largest brands ever, the retailer has just expanded the brand in more ways than one. On a mission to be the go-to fashion line for every kid, Cat & Jack included a special selection of sensory-friendly pieces and from October 22 onward, the company now offers adaptive apparel, made specially for kids and toddlers living with disabilities on their website Target.com. Based on the current brand styles, Target’s internal design team created the 40-item assortment with features like side and back snap and zip closures and hidden openings for abdominal access, all in an effort to make getting dressed easier for everyone (kids and parents).
Some highlights from the assortment include outerwear with zip-off sleeves, footless sleepwear and diaper-friendly leggings and bodysuits. Additionally, the clothing is made from extra-soft, comfortable, and durable cotton knits. “It’s our goal at Target to always make sure we have products that fit our guests’ needs, and all at a reasonable price point. We heard from our guests–and members of our own team–that there’s a need for adaptive clothing for kids that is both fashionable and affordable, so we set out to create exactly that,” said Julie Guggemos, Senior Vice President, Product Design & Development, Target.
Finding well-fitting clothes isn’t just about looking good. Research shows that a lack of functional and tailored clothes can make people with disabilities feel excluded, more so during job search or at social events. Designers and product developers acknowledge that creating clothes for special needs is a big challenge as the need is many a times very individual based and these products are not easy to be mass manufactured. But brands that are conscious of their social responsibility have dabbled into the segment. After getting a request from a 16-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, Nike created a line of sneakers that use a wraparound zipper rather than shoelaces, and also come with a larger opening to make it easy to get in and out of. After an online, limited release last fall, Nike has even launched new basketball and running shoes with the same design.
In another breakthrough collaboration, the already established successful adaptive line of dress shirts for adults called MagnaReady by Maura Horton, has partnered with PVH to develop a collection of Van Heusen men’s dress shirts using the MagnaClick adaptive technology. Last fall, the shirts were rolled out to select retailers, including Belk, JCPenney and Kohl’s, both in stores and online, as well as on Amazon.com.
From all possible indications, it has been found that more such collaborations are in the pipeline and if the current trend takes hold, the movement to create accessible, inclusive designs is not a fad, but a global business opportunity that is both emotionally satisfying and profitable too.