New incentives: Fashion for people with disabilities

Supply and demand determine markets – this also applies to the fashion industry. In theory, it is supposed to be. Yet a look at fashion for people with disabilities quickly reveals that many needs of physically impaired customers are not being addressed and met. Now more and more designers want to change this.


Photo: Dressmaker at work; Copyright: Pereiras Villagr

Many people with a disability cannot buy there clothes off the shelf and need mades to measure; © Pereiras Villagr

People with disabilities don’t appear to be a relevant target audience for the fashion industry. Adaptive clothing for people with disabilities is still a niche product. There is no ready-to-wear clothing for this target audience. The requirements are as specialized and individual as the different bodies and disabilities. Norms and standards can virtually not apply here. This is why standard collections like the ones that are increasingly available in larger sizes for instance are out of the question for now.

But does it need to be this way? More and more designers are saying NO! Two of them are young designers Lisa Polk and Christian Schinnerl. Together they founded the "hemdless" project. This translates into "shirtless". The name refers to the fact that people with Trisomy 21 (also called Down syndrome) generally have a hard time finding shirts that fit due to their unique physique. The collar is too tight, the sleeves too short and the entire shirt too long.

Within the context of "hemdless", Polk and Schinnerl developed five very individual shirts that were adapted to the personal needs and desires of five young people with Trisomy 21. Based on these individual items, the designers subsequently derived different commonalities and used them in the so-called "6th Shirt". Drawstring hems make it possible to adjust the lengths of the arms and torso. The collar size can also be adjusted. This shirt is intended to fit everyone.

Practical and chic at the same time

Photo: Young woman with trisomy 21 during photo shooting

Veronika Rehm is one of the five models for whom the "hemdless" designers created a custom-tailored shirt; © Clemens Krüger

So far, this inclusive fashion design approach is only moderately accepted. And yet a few pearls for example can be more than just a chic accessory. A nice detail for some means a little piece of added self-determination for others. Designer Christine Wolf embroiders her collection to where the pearls provide information in Braille. Blind people gather details about clothing size, color, material or care instructions from this embellishment. Clothing is therefore both practical and aesthetic.

The typically big gap between aesthetics and functionality is something that inspires more and more designers – whether with our without a disability – to rethink fashion. Take Eva Brenner from the Association einfachLEBEN e.V. in Nuremberg (English: Living Simply) for example. The trained dressmaker and costume designer has lived with multiple sclerosis for many years and was unhappy with the choices in the fashion sector. Since then, she offers people with disabilities custom-made clothing by request.

Inclusion network

Photo: Dr. Kathleen Wachowski; Copyright: Thomas Heinick

Dr. Kathleen Wachowski commits herself for universal fashion in the network Smart-Fit-In; © Thomas Heinick

Clothing that was adapted for those living with physical impairments can also be helpful for other people: truck drivers for example could also benefit from comfortable, padded pants made for wheelchair users. Grippable zipper pulls as well as large buttons and buttonholes are not just convenient, but easier to operate for people with motor impairments.

However, the economic interest in this type of fashion still does not appear to be very prevalent. Dr. Kathleen Wachowski wants to remedy this by building a communication network with Smart-Fit that links researchers, manufacturers and users internationally and in a cross-industry fashion. Aside from furniture, sports equipment and accessories, clothing and shoes take center stage here. The adapted and personalized products are intended to make it easier for people with physical impairments to lead a self-determined life and thus promote an inclusive society.

What does the target audience say?

People with disabilities acknowledge fashion that was custom-made for them in different ways. Opinions range from "useless" to "very practical" in this case. Fashion is after all a matter of taste.

Host Volker Westermann is a wheelchair user and believes that "young designers, who are brave enough to create something new and unusual" are very exciting. He concedes that disability also plays a role in this of course.

"I would like to see expressive clothes that don’t conceal alleged shortcomings, but rather emphasize them in a self-confident manner and creative fashion designers, who dare to create something unique," says Westermann. "Of course this also requires people with and without disabilities, who have the same kind of courage. Fortunately, I have many friends with and without disabilities, who implement and live this way. I realize that even though fashionable clothes should not be overrated, they should also not be ignored because of an alleged lack of beauty ideals."
Photo: Nadine Lormis; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

Nadine Lormis
(translated by Elena O'Meara)