In the fashion industry where there is a demand for diversity, there is a growing awareness in making clothes that can be “adapted” to people with different individuality. Sizing is carried out according to body shape, and clothes are made for people with disabilities, which are discussed in this special issue. We will learn where it has progressed to from the perspectives of both the creators and those who are relevant.
What Is Adaptive Fashion?
The purpose of adaptive fashion is to solve, one by one, the clothing problems that people with chronic diseases or disabilities (1) have. Functions and specifications are designed from scratch in these clothes for people with disabilities, such as wheelchair users who are usually in a sitting posture (2) and people with physical disabilities who have difficulty with putting on and taking off clothes with buttons or zips (3). This is a new attempt to address demands that have been set aside until now.
Investing in New Markets, a Venture of Brands
While there have been cases of short-term support in the past, Tommy Hilfiger is one of the first to take on new markets as a long-term business plan (4, 5). It launched a collection for children with disabilities in 2016 and later expanded to include adult wear. In Japan, United Arrows developed functional clothing ideal for both wheelchair users and able-bodied people in 2018 (6). The “circle of taking on challenges” is expanding.
Fashion Icons of the World
The runway is the true symbol of an era. Where once was reserved for eight heads tall models, it is now stridden by muses who have prosthetic legs or arms or are wheelchair-bound. Jillian Mercado, who starred as the model in a Diesel campaign in 2014 (7), Shaholly Ayers, who paved the way for models with limb deficiencies (8), and the late Mama Cax (9) are some of them.
Firsts in Fashion History Continue
Events such as Runway of Dreams, a fashion show by people with disabilities for those who are relevant that was held during New York Fashion Week 2019 A/W (10), Midashinami Club, an H&M Japan supported project where children with intellectual disabilities are taught how to dress (11, 12), are being held around the world to show that fashion has no barriers.
Adaptive Sense of Values That Smashes the Music and Art Scene
Adaptive approaches are also being carried out in the mainstream pop music scene and the art world where interpretations are left to the viewers. Viktoria Modesta, a British singer who performs with geometrically designed prosthetic legs (13). Mari Katayama, the winner of the 2020 Kimura Ihei Award, is known for her works that feature her own body, which is missing both legs (14).
Clothes Making That Fits Everyone Still Needs Improvement
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than one billion people around the world are said to be living with disabilities. That is about 15% of the global population. From this perspective, it is clear that adaptive fashion is not just for a small part of the minorities. Putting on our favorite clothes after we wake up in the morning—a given part of our lives—is a daily struggle for people with disabilities. It is clear that this genre has much potential demand.
At the forefront of this genre is Tommy Hilfiger. The designer themselves is a parent of an autistic child, and this led the company to enter the adaptive fashion market in 2016. Other brands such as Nike and IZ Adaptive, a Canadian wheelchair brand, are also coming up with collections for people with disabilities based on long- term business plans. All of these brands have thoughtfully designed components for people with different needs and physical characteristics. For example, trousers for wheelchair users have adjusted crotch inseam and waistband to prevent unnecessary puddling when one is in the basic sitting position. Shirts for people with physical disabilities have magnetic buttons for easy wearing and taking off, and sweatshirts use Velcro with a cut-out in the back like a Kappogi apron so that people who cannot lift their arms can wear them easily. While many products are developed with a focus on functionality, United Arrows is remarkable for its innovative approach which also considers the mental aspects of the wearers. It has designed clothes for but not exclusive to wheelchair users; they are easy to wear for those without disabilities too, benefitting both sides. The company says that the clothes are designed to be worn by as many people as possible so that they do not become a “negative mark” that says that the wearers have a disability. The term “adaptive fashion” has only been defined for a short period of about 10 years, but respective companies continue to go through a process of trial and error to create products that are physically and mentally comfortable for people with disabilities.
Another indispensable aspect of adaptive fashion is the value of diversity, which has become widespread in society at the same time. This has had a synergistic effect, and the awareness of listening to every concern and discontentment of the minorities has increased further. Its impact is also evident in the fact that models who walk the runway are now a diversity of people unbounded by race, body shape, and gender. At New York Fashion Week 2019 A/W, a show dedicated to adaptive clothing, Runway of Dreams, was held in the world for the first time, and the models, both children and adults, are all relevant people. And they posed, amazingly proudly. Children who used to have problems with buttoning up or putting on their trousers alone had overcome what they could not do and developed confidence. Having this kind of effect on the mind is another great power of these clothes.
Although still in the early stages of development, the ideas born here may just find their way to the general public next. Furthermore, they may also exceed the boundaries of clothing for people with disabilities and become ready-to-wear clothing of the new era of which able- bodied people can wear comfortably as well. To understand the essence of the word “adapt”, which can change in the future, it is important to listen to the voices of the relevant people. Hence, we asked Keita Tokunaga, a fashion writer who lives in a wheelchair, to tell us what he really thinks about adaptive fashion from his perspective.
Fashion is about displaying yourself, being who you want to be, and being free.
What is a disability? It is when problems surface due to deviating from the predetermined rules and one feels difficulties in living. Fashion, on the other hand, has no predetermined rules. In a way, the concept of disability may not exist in fashion.
I have heard the term “adaptive fashion” frequently over the past five years or so, but the concept itself has been around for a long time; it was 15 years ago when I learned about it. Back then, the first pair of jeans that had been refined for wheelchair users to wear easily went on sales in Japan. The term “adaptive fashion” did not exist yet, but whenever I saw clothes that had been refined to be worn easily by people with difficulties in putting on clothes, such as the elderly and people with disabilities, I felt that there was a one-sided trend that tolerated the fact that minorities had to “adapt” to wearing clothes designed for the majority. This trend has now become the keyword of the new era as the “trend”.
A trend implies that people who wear trendy clothes are stylish, so I understand well the desire to wear the same clothes as everyone else. Until I was about 20 years old, I myself had the stereotyped perception that fashion was about following trends. However, I came across the Street Snap Magazines FRUiTS and TUNE, and the free self-expression unbounded by rules struck me like a bolt of lightning. The owner of a multi-brand store in Ehime where I frequented back then called out to me and said that my wheelchair was cool. It was as if he saw my wheelchair as an individuality, just like a pair of shoes, and I felt something close to his high caliber of fashion. With this, I too changed my sense of value. I have since stopped focusing on trends and started to choose clothes that match my body and wheelchair. For example, I now choose clothes that have designs on the upper body where people tend to look at, and the sense of the length of outerwear that gives a beautiful silhouette when sitting in a wheelchair has become my style.
In today’s society that demands diversity, I think it is outdated to change yourself to match the trend. If a predetermined style exists, those who deviate from it will have to blame themselves. If we all bear the same worries of wishing we were thinner or taller and become one of the relevant people who have a “disability”, the sense of alienation will result in an emotional barrier toward fashion in us. Therefore, it is much healthier to confront our bodies and look for a style we are comfortable with, without worrying about trends.
Billie Eilish has become an iconic existence in the fashion world for her casual style of oversized shirts and hoodies and sweatsuits. It is a far cry from the traditional beauty of women accentuating their body lines, but therein is a style that is gaining traction with the youth. At the same time, even the idea that sweatsuits are tacky has been turned on its head. To me also, a wheelchair user, looking cool in soft and easy-to-move-in sweatsuits is an insanely great environment. This is just one example, but I believe that in the age of social networking where anyone can express themselves, a single person’s freestyle fashion can affect the world. Being particular in all sorts of outfits is the key to creating styles. Rather than clothes that people with prosthetic legs can wear easily, we should be pursuing styles that make one look cool, including the prosthetic legs. Instead of clothes that are easy for wheelchair users to wear, surely some styles make one look beautiful, including the wheelchairs. Other than functionally easy-to-wear clothing, I think having relevant people possess originality and find and show their individualities is another way of adapting to fashion.
- edit:Keiichiro Miyata coordination&translation／Milena Nomura