Working as an optometrist for seven years specialising in visiting residents in care homes, Kavita Chauchan already knew a lot about fashion for the face. Aware of the huge range of styles and shapes in spectacles, she couldn’t understand why the same did not apply to clothing for disabled people.
This spurred her to spend 18 months developing a range of designs for disabled people that weren’t “baggy and oversized”, that people would like to wear and that were easy to dress in. In June this year she launched Adaptawear, which aims to offer a functioning alternative to ordinary clothing.
“The disabled people we spoke to said they didn’t want to change how they looked, they didn’t want their clothes to look any different,” she explains. With this raison d’etre, Adaptawear designs and manufactures men and women’s clothing in 12 different styles with magnets and Velcro for fastening and side and back openings.
It also offers a bespoke tailoring service for disabled people who want clothes altered.
The clothes, which include underwear, skirts, trousers, tops and shirts, cost from £25, and shoes from £7. Chauchan says it is important to make sure the ranges are affordable as disabled people and their carers are often on limited incomes. Its target market is the over-50s and the feedback so far shows the efforts of Chauchan and her team of two part-time designers and a fellow director have been worth it.
“It’s been the Mexican wave effect as we are getting referrals from occupational therapists and other staff. We’re selling to people in America, Europe and China.”
Chauchan has great ambitions for the company and believes that disabled people should be able to buy their clothes in the high street like everyone else.
Would she work with Marks and Spencer? “Yes, of course! Argos is selling aids like wheelchairs now and it is a natural evolution for retailers to sell to this group of consumers.”
Website at www.adaptawear.co.uk
What do you think?
“When you have a physical disability, comfort and convenience wins over style every time when it comes to clothes. Washability is an important factor too. Adaptawear has addressed some of these problems by offering a (small) range of clothing designed to make dressing and undressing easier, but some of the adaptations, such as tops that fasten at the back and trousers with Velcro side strips, are only more convenient if you have a carer to help you. However, zips with big tags to pull on are a welcome idea. If I have a criticism, it’s that the clothes are rather boring and seem to be limited to different shades of grey.”
● Simon Heng is active in user-led organisations and is a wheelchair user
A career spanning 40 years in health and social care proved great inspiration for creating a range of clothes for disabled people, according to Sarah Smyth.
She trained as a nurse and then a social worker before launching Allana Smyth, which provides specialist designer clothing for disabled people, nearly three years ago.
The decision to start her own company was prompted by her experience of managing services for disabled people and her own interest in fashion. She says: “I thought if I have a stroke then I’m not going to want to stop looking good. I wanted to see clothing that people liked, using good quality fabric that didn’t need much care.”
She approached the East Midlands Development Agency to find a designer to create clothing that was easier for disabled people and their carers to dress in and started the firm in Leicestershire in March 2005.
“The premise of our clothing is that other people should look at you and say, ‘I like your top’ and not ‘that’s a nice top for a person with disabilities’,” she says.
The company began with nightwear – it took 12 nightdress prototypes developed over the course of a year before they settled on their final accessible design – and now manufactures a variety of women’s and men’s clothing priced between £23 and £75. Last year, the firm sold 1,000 items of nightwear and 1,000 other fashion items in four sizes.
“Our nightwear works very well in residential homes because the items can be opened out fully and people feel attractive in them.”
She regularly visits homes to show her products and give demonstrations on how they can be worn. The feedback from disabled people and their carers has been very positive, Smyth says, with them praising the functionality of the clothing as well as the classic styling.
Fashion is very much an extension of people’s personalities, she adds, and this does not differ if a person has a disability. With this in mind, next year the company is launching a spring range that Smyth hopes will appeal to a younger market.
Website at www.allanasmyth.co.uk
What do you think?
“The Laine cape sleeve jacket is great. I have rheumatoid arthritis and have problems putting things on, so flexibility is important and flexible clothing is going to suit many more people. I like the ideas of the magnets in the cape as I can’t always do buttonholes or Velcro. The style is timeless and won’t date and I like short sleeves because they don’t get in the way. It’d be good if there was a magnet in the front to close it in case it gets cold. That’s my only criticism of it.”
● Sally Underwood is a librarian and part-time inclusive designer
When Susanne Berg hired Meagan Whellans as her personal assistant in March 2001, little did they know it would change their lives. Berg, who has used a wheelchair for more than 25 years, is a campaigner for disabled rights in her native Sweden and has a keen interest in fashion. She had been thinking about clothes and why some items fitted well and others didn’t.
When she discussed this with Whellans – who had moved from Australia to Sweden after completing a textiles degree – the pair hit upon the idea of creating their own clothes patterns for disabled people. “It’s not always fun to go to a pub in comfy jogging pants – it doesn’t fit with your identity and is not going to help you pick someone up!” Berg says.
The two began experimenting with cheap cotton bought from Ikea to make clothes patterns and then approached Sweden’s General Heritage Fund to finance its templates. They were awarded 1.2m Swedish kronas (£95,000) to work with the Independent Living Institute to create their Fashion Freaks range of patterns for people who use wheelchairs.
Launched in 2001, Fashion Freaks has patterns for skirts, and for trousers and jackets for men and women that are specially designed for a seated position. “Skirts and jackets aren’t made for people who use wheelchairs – there is either too much material or not enough,” says Bert.
In July this year, the Fashion Freaks templates were added to the Independent Living Institute’s website where they can be downloaded free and are complete with instructions on how to make the articles.
So far the templates are averaging 6,500 hits every month on the website, which is in English and Swedish. Most of the hits come from the United States, then Sweden and the UK.
Berg says these results are testament to how great the need is for fashionable clothing that wheelchair users can comfortably wear. “It’s hard enough when you are disabled not to be discriminated against,” adds Berg. “I want my people to look good.”
Fashion Freaks website at www.independentliving.org/fashionfreaks/introeng
What do you think?
“The Fashion Freaks website is a clever idea. It is an excellent way for people who have disabilities or who are restricted in some way to browse for clothes. Appearance is even more important if you are disabled as it can be more difficult to obtain fashionable and funky clothes. Choosing your own patterns, colours and styles also gives people independence. It provides the opportunity to look fabulous rather than dowdy, not to mention having a choice of what to wear.”
● Anna C Young uses mental health services and is a wheelchair user
If you have introduced, or heard of, a new idea for adults’ or children’s services, please let us know. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the 22 November issue under the headline “Dress to impress”