What is Adaptive Apparel?
Adaptive apparel is apparel for people with special needs. Mainstream ready-to-wear fashion is designed with a specific ‘ideal’ body in mind, differing depending on the target market. The requirements of this community have long gone underserved. “Adaptive apparel” is a catch-all term that has historically brought certain connotations with it. Namely, that this type of clothing is for function foremost; it is not stylish. This clothing type is put on differently because it has different types of closures, like Velcro, magnets, and elastics, intended for people with special needs to be more independent in dressing themselves, but that doesn’t mean there’s no need for style. Through my doctoral work, I deeply explored adaptive and wearable fashion tech and created the 5F’s Framework in order to create a new generation of solutions for user’s health, life, and experience.
Adaptive Apparel is Wearable Technology
Wearable technology does not necessarily mean wearable electronics. It is something you wear that does something exciting. Wearable tech can be any innovative approach to clothing. It doesn’t have to be electronic; it could be wearable tech because it has a unique fabric, is sized differently, or is a non-traditional shape. New, futuristic materials and techniques move the field forward, but adaptive clothing is rooted in the past. Today, we need to fuse wearable technology and adaptive clothing and make the clothes exciting, not because of electronic flash but because they improve the quality of life and provide self-expression aesthetically.
We need to treat the adaptive clothing market like any other fashion market by making garments fashionable and stylish so the wearer may express themselves. By making adaptive clothing only about function and not allowing aesthetics, we dismiss an entire market, ultimately sending a message that people with special needs do not care about what they look like and do not matter. Fashion is communicating who you are and what you see in the world.
The industry has largely assumed adaptive clothing is a niche market, that it’s not diverse. But more recent investigation suggests it’s actually a vast market. Vogue Business estimates the market is a $400 Billion industry made up of several types of consumers. In the mainstream clothing realm, there are lots of choices for people in the typical population. People choose brands that invoke feelings and allow for self-expression, and are our desired fit.
Many brands are still looking at this group like it is simply one type of customer even though the adaptive clothing market is diverse and lucrative. Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you only want to wear sweatpants.
Who Makes Adaptive Apparel?
Brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Zappos, Seven7 Jeans, and Kohls, along with several specialty brands, are pioneering the adaptive clothing space. While they’ve made great strides, many of their designs are still first and foremost rooted in function, and the user’s needs for self-expression is secondary. Outside of custom pieces, which have produced beautiful designs (usually only for celebrities), no brand is truly getting it right because they do not consider what the consumer needs from a diverse perspective. Meaning, adaptive clothing is created with designers and medical professionals, but not the end-user.
Despite missteps, it is noteworthy and extraordinary that these mainstream brands entered the market because they show other brands they need to pay attention to this community. There are customers with needs that must be addressed.
However, only looking at closures and fastener locations and doing a little to modify the design is an old-fashioned approach that can blend everyone with special needs into the same group, even though they have varied needs. It isn’t holistic and user-centric, often only paying lip service and not serving enough people in the market. The mainstream only scratches the surface of what needs to be addressed.
An Inclusive Design Process that Starts with Empathy
When asking only medical experts to help design adaptive clothing, you treat the design process like healthcare, not fashion. These users need to go to places like prom and work. If it is based on function, it won’t serve the user. Adaptive clothing is for people with different bodies who want the same product. So, start your design process by asking the end-user what they want to wear. It is understandable and laudable that healthcare professionals create current adaptive clothing. But, doing that only gives you one point of view.
Who are you designing for? Many of the current adaptive clothing designs only work if the user can’t dress themselves. But there are two types of users in adaptive clothing, non-independent dressers, and independent dressers. Independent dressers are ignored. Independent dressers are left out when the user is not part of the design process. It is crucial to start the design process from a place of empathy. Figure out who your users are and have an open conversation with their needs before figuring out what problems adaptive clothing needs to solve.
Where Should Adaptive Apparel be Sold?
Treating adaptive clothing like medical products is a mindset we need to breakthrough, or else people with special needs will stay marginalized. They want to buy clothes where everyone buys clothes—the brand’s website, not a physical therapy clinic or medical supply store. People, in general, don’t love buying clothes at stores. They want to order it with free shipping and returns so that they can try on clothes in their home. Creating adaptive clothing by including the end-user in the design process will make clothing companies inclusive
The Future of Adaptive Apparel
We are beginning to see adaptive clothing enter the mainstream fashion industry, providing more options for people with disabilities. There is an enormous financial opportunity, but it will only be realized once the users’ inclusion is part of the design process. Adaptive clothing is not just medical products but wearable technology. As a a fashion designer and university scientist, I focus on clothing that meets the fashion, comfort, self-confidence and physical needs of people. I will guide you and your brand into the emerging adaptive apparel market. Learn more about sizing and adaptive apparel with my infographic. To learn more about wearable tech, subscribe to my blog below.