"So far, there is no lobby in fashion for people with disabilities"

Interview with Dr. Kathleen Wachowski, Smart-Fit-In

Aesthetic fashion garments for people with disabilities is still a niche market. This is why a European network wants to make sure that manufacturers, researchers and the target audience itself work together on developing intelligent and affordable solutions in an interdisciplinary and cross-industry fashion. Aesthetics and functionality are intended to be equally connected and enrich the market.


Photo: Dr. Kathleen Wachowski; Copyright: Thomas Heinick

Dr. Kathleen Wachowski; © Thomas Heinick

Dr. Kathleen Wachowski is the President of the Smart-Fit-In Association, which coordinates the network work together with Reha-Sport-Bildung e.V. in Thuringia. REHACARE.de spoke with her about current European activities and plans concerning universal clothing.

Dr. Wachowski, why do we need a network like Smart-Fit-In?

Dr. Kathleen Wachowski: So far, there is no lobby in fashion for people with disabilities. However, there are very competent microenterprises and small companies that develop excellent personalized products for this target audience and people without disabilities, but are so far barely known. We want to maintain and expand the variety of these European companies with adapted production, distribution and communication platforms with Smart-Fit-In. The network is also intended to contribute to inclusion – through chic, adaptive clothing that can be worn by people with disabilities, but also by people who are not disabled. Job inclusion is also very important to us by adapting textile machinery for custom apparel production so that wheelchair users for instance can easily operate these machines.

What can the work of Smart-Fit-In look like in practice?

Wachowski: In the network people with disabilities work together with researchers as consultants and test persons, for example when developing a 3d pattern design at ENSAIT institute in Roubaix, France, and the Technical University Dresden, Germany. But the target group itself also works as developers of adapted marketing for people with disabilities – such as "Esthétique et Handicap" in Paris, France, "Agentur Age" in Nuremberg, Germany, or "Bezgraniz Couture" in Moscow, Russia for example. We also work closely with the wheelchair basketball players of the Oettingen RSB Team Thüringen. As part of the EU project called "Fashion-able", the athletes tested men’s shirts tailored to their specific needs for the Belgian Bivolino company.
Photo: Wheelchair basketball players with Bivolino shirts; Copyright: Lutz Leßmann
Wheelchair basketball players, Oettinger RSB Team Thüringen
The wheelchair basketball players of the Oettingen RSB Team Thüringen with the men’s shirts tailored to their specific needs they tested for the Belgian Bivolino company.
Photo: Screenshots of the 3D pattern design development; Copyright: ENSAIT
Adapted 3D pattern design
The project about adapted 3D pattern design for people with disabilities wants wants to lead ones view in a way that the physical impairment is not the focus of attraction. Project implementation 2014, by the students MIHOKOVIC Mirna, NAMBIAR Roshni , SINGH Vaishnavi, lead by Prof. Pascal Bruniaux, at ENSAIT in Roubaix, France.
Photo: Woman in a wheelchair with friends in a bar; Copyright: Klaus von Kassel
Perfect fitting
If clothes fit perfectly it influences the sense of well-being and usually also has a positive impact on the person’s charisma.
Photo: Wheelchair user with a poncho driving up a ramp; Copyright: Klaus von Kassel
Good looking and functional
Many wheelchair users do not only want their clothes to look good but also to be functional. If fashion can combine both it is perfect.
Photo: Wheelchair user and model Sven Baum; Copyright: René Liedtke
Sven Baum
The wheelchair user Sven Baum is not only very active in karate, but also works as a model.
Photo: Young stylish woman with a crutch; Copyright: Jaques Brenan
Deza Nguembock
The Frenchwoman Deza Nguembock recently started a sensitization campaign with her agency "Esthétique et Handicap" in Paris.
Among other things, you collaborate with researchers of the Bönnigheimer Hohenstein Institute. To what extent are the gained insights important to your work?

Wachowski: A study on ideal sportswear for wheelchair athletes such as basketball players or handbikers was completed at the Institute in 2013. For the first time ever, these findings are now going to be applied at a company in Saxony, so those wheelchair basketball players are able to order their customized sportswear online in the future.

What other results were you able to achieve?

Wachowski: We have built a network that brings people from the areas of research, education, sports, art and politics from 14 European countries together on the subject of customized clothing, but also shoes, furniture and other products for people with or without disabilities for them to jointly develop projects. At German universities, early student projects on adaptive clothing were also being initiated. We were already able to organize some cross-industry conferences and also to support several microenterprises and small companies developing prototypes.
Photo: Woman in a wheelchair on a catwalk; Copyright: Bezgraniz Couture

The German designer Angela Tönnies showed her clothes at the Bezgraniz-Couture Award 2011 in Moscow, Russia; © Bezgraniz Couture

The network also reaches beyond the German border. What do other European countries offer in terms of fashion?

Wachowski: It is very difficult to rate the true fashion options in this area, since adaptive clothing is so far not being sold in fashion boutiques and department stores, big brands do not offer clothes for this target group and the competent microenterprises are hard to find in the internet. In Germany, fashion for people with mobility impairments for instance is so far only available for purchase online or on site in the manufacturers’ venues. Though compared to other European Union countries, the options in Germany are varied despite the small volumes. The situation is similar in France, the Netherlands and Sweden. Southern European countries such as Spain or Romania appear to offer next to no adaptive clothing at this point.

A quick look into the future: what would you like to achieve with Smart-Fit-In within the next five years?

Wachowski: I would like to create an international, interdisciplinary business that combines microenterprises and small companies that offer adaptive, aesthetic and healthy products, maintains their autonomy and uniqueness at the same time and supports their cross-industry development. What’s more, I would like to encourage and invite manufacturers and especially interested people with disabilities to contact us and actively contribute in future projects as test persons and consultants – in order to build up together a smart and fit lobby for this target group.
More about Smart-Fit-In at: http://en.smart-fit-in.de
Photo: Nadine Lormis; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

Nadine Lormis
(translated by Elena O'Meara)