If you haven’t heard of adaptive clothing, you aren’t alone. Essentially, it’s the modification of mainstream clothing to better serve the needs of people with disabilities. One in seven people across the globe has a physical and/or cognitive disability, adding up to more than 1 billion people living with a disability worldwide. And still this market has been underserved by mainstream brands and retailers. As an industry, we can do much better. In fact, leading companies are innovating and providing functional and fashionable clothing for this sizable – and growing – population of consumers.
Amazing organizations including The Runway of Dreams Foundation and Zappos Adaptive are accelerating change. We’re already seeing tremendous interest, and we expect more brands to embrace the concept, but there’s still much more work to do. I believe adaptive clothing will become as common as petite or plus-size sections – as long as brands realize there are gaps in the marketplace offering ample opportunity.
A starting point
Great innovation comes from ideas sparked by great need. In this case, it’s a young boy with muscular dystrophy who just wanted to wear jeans to school like the other kids. His mom, Mindy Scheier, is a fashion designer by trade who saw his struggle to feel included. She modified jeans to fit him despite his leg braces and inability to use buttons and zippers. The concept of baseball caps was her guiding principle: someone thought to make the hats adjustable to fit different head sizes, so why not apply this to other clothing needs?
When she saw the emotional impact something as simple as wearing jeans to school had on her son, she realized there are millions of people in the United States alone struggling to achieve the same feeling of inclusion. She created the Runway of Dreams Foundation in 2016 and partnered with Tommy Hilfiger to make fashion history by launching the first-ever mainstream adaptive clothing line. Just a few years later, many other brands have joined this initiative.
It’s inspiring to see the momentum, especially since there is so much more than being able to “fit in” for people with disabilities. Researchers at Northwestern University found that clothing can affect psychological states and performance levels, and they coined the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the phenomenon. Adaptive clothing gives everyone the ability to dress with independence, confidence, and style each morning, which can set the tone for their entire day.
The business case
Each of the brands we’ve had the great privilege of working with on this mission has found there is also an incredible business case behind the initiative.
Adaptive fashion is not only a noteworthy cause, it provides a sizable opportunity for brands and retailers. Americans with disabilities are the third-largest market segment in the United States according to the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy. This segment has around $490 billion in disposable income. This is an undervalued market that retailers should be clambering toward. In fact, a Coherent Market Insights study predicts the global market for adaptive clothing will approach $393 billion by 2026.
Harvard Business School studied high-performing organizations across the globe to understand if there’s a correlation between their financial performance and corporate social values. The study found that businesses that are agile and ahead of the curve in terms of market changes and customer needs are also socially responsible. These companies all had a strong synergy between their financial performance and how they treat and attend to community and social needs.
Another study from the National Institute of Health found that giving to charities activates areas of the brain that are associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. Employees of organizations that are focused on doing social good react positively to that behavior and are more socially connected with their communities, which drives business value. In the case of adaptive clothing, there’s a great business case because of the demand for this type of clothing, and it makes employees of these brands happier as they contribute to the mission.
Brands leading the way
Powerful brands are leading the charge in adaptive fashion – brands that are already experts in making products. They know how to source, buy, assemble, and predict demand. It’s not hard for them to manufacture these new designs, as long as they understand how to adapt mainstream clothing – brand and looks – to the need. Brands looking to participate may need a little help with this, but they have examples to emulate.
One example is Nike, which adapted some of its top-selling shoes to create a line called FlyEase that sells at the same price point as non-FlyEase counterparts. The shoes feature a unique closure that unzips completely in the back so it’s easier for people to put their foot in and is so subtle that the sneakers look like any other Nike shoe.
Large global powerhouses aren’t the only ones are creating great products. Nimble, focused, and purpose-driven brands have launched and are growing quickly. Billy Footwear used the concept of Universal Design to make amazing mainstream shoes that have mass appeal and are functional, fashionable, and inclusive for everyone.
As a way to promote brands leading the way, the Runway of Dreams Foundation featured Zappos Adaptive, Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive, and Kohl’s Adaptive at New York Fashion Week. A revolutionary adaptive fashion show and gala celebrated inclusion, applauded innovation, and highlighted change in the fashion industry. The live-streamed runway event featured more than 35 disabled models wearing adaptive clothing on the Runway of Dreams Facebook page as well as the Runway by SAP app to enable real-time interaction with designers.
Making adaptive clothing common
Soon, people won’t view adaptive clothing as different. It’s just going to be another size, another option, another style for a great product. Those with disabilities will have the opportunity to choose the brands and styles of clothing they prefer and feel great about themselves. It’s going to be a tremendous thing to witness, and it’s a very exciting time to be a part of this market. Don’t miss out – please join us in accelerating this change in the industry
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