Fashion for wheelchair users – functional, comfortable, diverse
Fashion for wheelchair users – functional, comfortable, diverse
Pants, jackets or dresses – if you use a wheelchair, you inherently have a different perspective on clothing compared to other fashionistas who are able to walk. Fashion-conscious wheelchair users have to first find companies or labels that not only meet functional and adaptive clothing requirements, but also cater to their sense of fashion and style.
"People need their individuality and their personality. And fashion can do that for them: Show them who they are, make them feel comfortable and secure," says Samanta Bullock about the power of fashion.
Sabine Klemens lucked out when she happened to come across the online shop of Samanta Bullock (SB). Even though Klemens and the eponymous SB founder are both wheelchair users, it is not necessarily a prerequisite for successful, inclusive fashion design in Klemens’ eyes. Nevertheless, she considers it an unbeatable combination. "As a wheelchair user, Samanta knows about the typical clothing challenges, while she is also familiar with the fashion industry processes in her role as a wheelchair model. This combination allows her to collaborate with her designers to create great items of clothing that offer solutions and different versions of the same piece to meet the needs of clients with different types of disabilities." After all, different people have different needs – what comes easy to some might prove to be a major hurdle for others:
Sabine Klemens was booked by SB as a wheelchair model for a photoshoot. As it turned out, she was unable to put on the pantsuit she was supposed to model on her own because the adaptive zipper ended at the back. While Samanta was able to easily close the zipper, it proved impossible for Sabine Klemens who has a different type of disability. "What impressed me was that this sparked SB to work out a solution to this problem with her designer over several weeks and change the collection until it was perfect." As a result, the pantsuits can now be opened and zipped up on the sides. Not only will this enable Sabine Klemens to get dressed by herself, but many others will also benefit from this design. "Samanta needed no explanation as to why needing assistance from others is not an option for me and others given that a changed detail brings autonomy and self-determination. For me, this is what inclusive design and quality of life is all about!"
"We are worth it that the fashion industry perceives us as a fashion-conscious clientele and no longer ignores us. I want to be visible and feel as comfortable in my clothes as I do in my skin underneath", Sabine Klemens demands in a representative way for many other wheelchair users.
When function meets comfort in fashion
For the woman from Germany’s Rhineland, fashion is not just about the clothes she wears, it is also about the story they tell to the world. In this case, it tells the story of her evolving from an insecure woman who didn’t like the way she looked to becoming a confident wheelchair model. These days she expresses her individuality and mood using colors, designs and materials. She also points out that the way she dresses evokes feelings and reactions from others: "What I wear influences the way others perceive me and changes depending on whether I wear casual clothes, an office-appropriate dress with bright color accents or a chic designer pantsuit complete with trendy shoes and glamour makeup."
Yet finding these stylish clothing items remains a challenge. After all, the nurse doesn't just want trendy outfits that most reflect her personality and the occasion. The clothing cut should also be right and comfortable while in a seated position. Klemens also pays attention to functional embellishments that offer exceptional comfort or might even prevent undue pain due to disabilities. For example, bulky seams from pockets, as well as creases or beads in the lower back area are an absolute no-go as they can be painful pressure points. That’s why she chooses soft fabrics and typically makes sure that the waistband is cut higher at the back and flexible at the front to where it hugs the rear waistline while seated and does not expose any areas that should not be displayed. "The fit of pants often has to be modified: wider pant access makes dressing and undressing easier. Your typical jeans pockets at the waist should be eliminated for wheelchair users: they should be placed lower at the front area," Klemens adds.
Samanta Bullock knows from experience what’s important when it comes to adaptive clothing: "Comfort is the top priority. Just imagine sitting in clothes all day where the zipper or some other detail hurts you. Having said that, apart from being comfortable, clothing must also be stylish and make me feel good and powerful in any occasion: a business meeting, a party or a gym visit."
For Sabine Klemens (left) fashion is another word for diversity and has the power to break down prejudices. She can be seen here with make-up artist Huma Tahir and the models Miss Prata, Kathleen Humberstone and designer Samanta Bullock.
Filling a marketplace void: sustainable and inclusive fashion
According to Bullock, even in the year 2020, there is still a large target market that is standing on the sidelines of fashion. This largely ignored group of people has to try to adjust and adapt available clothing items that often don’t look stylish and even cause pain.
"We believe that our work and readiness to change and advocate for others shows the significance and impact of the huge marketplace void that has not yet been identified and filled. Attracting attention and support for our cause is important to show that this segment is a financially viable investment option," says Samanta Bullock. "We are open and prepared to serve the large department stores. However, the most important thing for me is that these companies focus on sustainability and not just on making a profit. We want to increase our collaboration with international designers to promote fashion that includes everyone’s needs in a more affordable and sustainable way."
For Sabine Klemens, that's just one of the many reasons why she likes the Samanta Bullock online department shop. Various London designers offer luxurious fashion and design clothes with the main purpose of dressing people for the seating position. "I like the overall #FashionForAll concept and sustainability approach, as well as the fit, the many outfit combinations and the well-thought-out, sophisticated details of the clothes," says the wheelchair model, who now only buys pants in specialty stores that design clothing for wheelchair users.
Models exemplify diversity and authenticity
Klemens also discovered other online stores that accommodate her specific needs – one of them is Kinetic Balance. The online store from The Hague in the Netherlands specializes in high-quality, stylish yet functional adaptive clothing and bags designed for wheelchair users. The apparel is suitable for outdoor activities while in a seated position. "There are many well-thought-out details and great solutions that cover the backside of the lower legs to protect against rain and cold like the 'Raindek Parka' or apparel for a more comfortable hand bike ride," gushes Sabine Klemens, who is also a brand ambassador of the Dutch company.
Functional and at the same time fashionably attractive clothing is not a matter of course for wheelchair users. They are all the happier when they have found the right brand for themselves – like Sabine Klemens with Kinetic Balance, for example.
The Kinetic Balance advertising images mostly show younger active wheelchair users who engage in all kinds of sports and exude joyful energy and a zest for life. Nearly all of them are paraplegic, which means they are not impeded from the waist up. In the past, Sabine Klemens was also very athletic and embarked on many fun sports as a wheelchair user. Even though she still loves adventure, these days a progressive neurological disorder makes it difficult for her to be active in any sports other than swimming. "This puts me somewhat outside the typical spectrum of Kinetic Balance brand ambassadors. I broaden expectations both in terms of my age and disability," she adds. "I am all the more pleased that this new grandma on wheels can be a role model who sends the positive message that activity and enthusiasm for life do not depend on your age or perfectly healthy limbs and that big things are still possible."
Whether brand ambassadors or models – we unquestionably need more authenticity and a broader spectrum. Sabine Klemens agrees and wants more diversity in advertising and a stronger representation of models with disabilities – in general but especially in the fashion industry. "This offers more possibilities for self-identification as especially young people seek out role models to look up to." When it comes to showcasing clothes, it is crucial to feature models both in a standing and in a seated position, particularly as it pertains to fashionable clothing for wheelchair users or adaptive clothing designs in general. Sabine Klemens is excited that both Kinetic Balance and Samanta Bullock SB are already implementing these concepts – and are setting a good example for others.
Nadine Lormis (translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com