Adaptive clothing gets a makeover

Designers bring a sense of style to functional clothes

Created date

November 29th, 2019
After writing to Nike about his difficulty tying shoes, Matthew Walzer was shocked when the company sent him a pair of prototype shoes that didn’t need to be tied. The shoes are easy to get on and secure with Velcro.

After writing to Nike about his difficulty tying shoes, Matthew Walzer was shocked when the company sent him a pair of prototype shoes that didn’t need to be tied.

In 2012, high school junior Matthew Walzer was looking ahead to college. It’s an anxious time for anyone, but Walzer had concerns most students never think about. 

Walzer has cerebral palsy and, though he had overcome many obstacles over the course of his 16 years, the ability to tie his own shoes eluded him.

Frustrated, Walzer did what he describes as a “Hail Mary pass.” He wrote a heartfelt letter to Nike about his predicament.   

“My dream is to go to the college of my choice without having to worry about someone coming to tie my shoes every day,” Walzer said in the letter. “I’ve worn Nike basketball shoes all my life. I can only wear this type of shoe because I need ankle support to walk. At 16-years-old, I am able to completely dress myself, but my parents still have to tie my shoes. As a teenager who is striving to become totally self-sufficient, I find this extremely frustrating and, at times, embarrassing.”

Expecting no more than a polite reply, Walzer was shocked when he received a box containing prototype Nike shoes.

“Your talented team of designers has thoughtfully created a shoe that, for the first time in my life, I can put on myself. When I put the shoes on every morning, they give the greatest sense of independence and accomplishment I have ever felt in my life,” said Walzer.

Walzer graduated from high school and went on to Florida Gulf Coast University. He also continued his relationship with Nike, testing various designs of what ultimately became the Nike FlyEase line of easy access shoes. 

Getting dressed can be a challenge

Walzer’s story ends happily, but for many of the estimated 50 million Americans living with a disability, finding suitable clothing is an ongoing challenge. 

The average pair of jeans is designed for people who stand and sit. Shirts with buttons are crafted for people who have the fine motor skills needed to use the buttons. T-shirts are made for people who can raise their arms over their heads. 

Many people with mobility or dexterity issues need clothes that work for them. Adaptive clothes may be proportioned to comfortably fit people who use wheelchairs or have magnets instead of buttons.  

Adaptive clothing has long been available from specialty retailers, but until recently, the term “adaptive clothing” has described garments designed for functionality, not fashion—as if people who wear adaptive clothing have no desire to look good.  

In the past few years, however, mainstream fashion designers and retailers have introduced stylish adaptive clothing lines. Tommy Hilfiger introduced his line of adaptive clothing in 2016, and both Target and Kohl's now sell adaptive fashions. 

IZ Adaptive

Canadian fashion designer Izzy Camilleri started selling adaptive clothing in 2009. “Back then,” she says, “there was very little out there with regard to adaptive clothing.” Camilleri’s sleek, modern designs shook things up, but connecting with customers was difficult. 

“When I started, the internet wasn’t what it is today. Buying online wasn’t what it is today. Social media wasn’t what it is today,” says Camilleri. “For those early years, we were walking in the dark. And just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you’re all flocking to the same magazines, so it was a massive marketing challenge.”

From the start, Camilleri recognized that clothes are an important form of self-expression. 

“Many times, people are quite limited by what they can wear, so they end up wearing track pants every day. If that’s not who you are, it can really affect you emotionally and mentally,” says Camilleri. “But if you do have options, where you can wear something that more reflects who you are—that’s huge. I want my clothes to be fashionable and functional.”

The marketplace

Driven by consumers’ demand for more stylish and up-to-date fashions, the market for adaptive clothing is growing. In 2017, sales of adaptive clothing totaled $278.9 billion. Sales are projected to hit $400 billion by 2026. 

With all that promise, it’s surprising that more retailers and fashion designers haven’t jumped into the adaptive clothing market. 

The reason may be that it’s not easy. As Camilleri knows, designing adaptive clothing is far more complicated than keeping up with hemline trends. “It’s a massive undertaking,” she says. “It’s not simple. You need to be educated on what modifications need to be done. You could hurt someone if you aren’t careful. For example, for people who are paralyzed, back pockets on a pair of jeans could cause pressure sores. Before you do adaptive clothing, you need to do research.”

While creating adaptive clothing has a host of unique design challenges, there is no doubt that more companies are preparing to enter the lucrative market category Camilleri pioneered.

For her part, Camilleri continues to offer customers beautiful and affordable adaptive clothing options. She says the biggest compliment she ever got was when one of her clients told her that wearing IZ Adaptive clothes made her feel human again. 

For more information about IZ Adaptive, visit IZAdaptive.com.

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