Canadians disrupt fashion industry with clothing for people with disabilities
Getting dressed is something many people take for granted, but for people with a disability, fashion options are often limited. Most clothing is designed for people who can stand or walk, not for those in wheelchairs or who struggle to button a blouse.
But Canadian entrepreneurs are moving fashion forward, creating new products and clothing for a largely untapped market and for people whom the industry has long overlooked.
Alexa Jovanovic, a 24-year-old recent graduate of Ryerson University’s Faculty of Communication and Design, is one of them. She turned her love of fashion and beadwork into an innovative idea, creating “Braille in Fashion,” a fashion line for the blind.
It all started with a graduation project that encouraged students to disrupt the fashion industry.
Jovanovic said she wanted to do “something that would create an amazing social impact.” She was shocked to find that even research on fashion for people with disabilities was scarce.
“While I was shopping, I noticed immediately the small beaded clothing and I made the connection between the small beads and the similarity and size to a braille dot,” she said. “And I thought to myself why can’t all of this beautiful clothing also hold functional value? Why can’t these also have messages?”
She worked closely with seven blind participants who consulted on the design process. The beading on the clothing spells out in braille various characteristics of the clothing – colour, size, washing instructions – that might otherwise be found on a clothing label.
Braille in Fashion is still in its prototype stage and has three products so far: a white shirt with black beading, a jean jacket and a little black dress.
Jovanovic sews each bead by hand and currently has a patent pending. Over the long-term, she plans to launch a company and mass-produce the designs.
One of her collaborators, Sue Vaile, is vision-impaired with limited sight in one eye and uses a cane to navigate. She is able to feel out the beading on a white shirt, reading out the information with her fingers.
“I can see contrast so I know this is a light shirt, but is it white? Is it yellow? I am not sure, so for me to know this is white and I can wear it as a dress shirt with my pants when I am going for to dinner, I can sort of match what I need to do,” Vaile said.
The clothing also restores individuality and independence, which is sometimes lost with fashion for people with disabilities.
Louise Sertsis, who has multiple sclerosis, also struggled to find products that she could use with ease and wanted to regain the independence that she lost when she began to use a wheelchair. Need and necessity led to innovation and invention, and she became an entrepreneur, creating the “handi pac” when she failed to find a suitable bag for her wheelchair.
It took her roughly two years to create a prototype, which is really two bags in one that attach with magnets. One part of the bag sits on her lap and is secured behind her back, holding sunglasses, phones, wallets and keys. The other part sits on her knees and can hold clothing or groceries.
“It works great for me,” said Sertsis, who added that the bag offers her “safety, independence and freedom.”
On a recent trip to visit her father in British Columbia, Sertsis was able to fit all of her clothing in the bag and to pack it by herself without the assistance of her husband or a stranger.
“It has given me a sense of confidence where I know that I can do this,” she said.
Sertsis is fielding requests for customers, and next month, she plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of the bags. She has launched a company called Advanced Freedom to create more products. Up next on her list are bathing suits for people with mobility issues.
The demand for clothing is no surprise to Izzy Camilleri.
She originally opened her adaptive clothing company IZ Adaptive in 2009, but high costs made the business hard to sustain. In 2016, she took a break to restructure.
Camilleri relaunched in 2018 with a collection of 55 items including jackets, coats, T-shirts and pants. She partnered with online retailer Zappos to expand her global reach.
She says her work is more than a career; it's a calling.
"There is so much for you and (me) out there. It resonated with me that it had a higher purpose in that it offered fashionable clothing for people whose options were quite limited,” she said. “So it was more inspiring doing this than for able-bodied (people)."
Approximately 60 percent of Camilleri’s collection is made for people in wheelchairs. Her bestsellers include coats with magnets that are easier for people with a lack of dexterity than coats with buttons, and coats that are shorter at the back so they cover the laps of people who are sitting.
“The feedback is pretty incredible,” Camilleri said. “We have people telling us how life-altering it is…how it opens up their world in that they know they can go for a job interview and feel and look great. I had one woman tell me that she felt human again.”
Now, even major companies like Target, Tommy Hilfiger and Nike are offering adaptive fashions of their own, eager to tap into a long overlooked market.
“Allowing people to be able to independently shop, independently select clothing from their wardrobe, know how to pair it…that is something that shouldn’t be taken away from anyone,” Jovanovic said.