Fashion Moves Forward with Adaptive Clothing

Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive
Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive

Inclusive. It’s a term found everywhere in the major headlines. From an inclusive education strategy to an inclusive economy, it’s a word inviting all to participate — no exclusions, no exceptions.

But there’s one place you don’t really see the word: the mainstream fashion industry. Or if you do see it, it is about a very specific designer for a very specific need. Until now.

Major fashion designers and retailers like Tommy Hilfiger and Target have launched new inclusive, adaptive clothing lines, making it possible for people with disabilities and special needs to have the same clothing options as others.


Balancing fashion with function

There are more than 40 million people in the U.S. with a disability, and more than 14 million of them have trouble with activities of daily living, such as dressing, according to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau Report.

Runway of Dreams
Runway of Dreams

A person with a disability may have difficulty with zippers and buttons, pulling shirts over their heads or pulling pants over their legs.

For many years, people with disabilities and special needs had to come up with their own solutions to the challenges faced while getting dressed.

Today — that’s where adaptive clothing comes in. It’s clothing designed specifically for people with disabilities who find it challenging to get dressed by themselves or those who may have various sensory issues and are sensitive to certain textures and materials.


An inclusive design approach

Tommy Hilfiger’s Adaptive line is driven by a “commitment to innovation and modern style” with clothing that “delivers solutions to make dressing easier.”

What does that involve?

  • Modified closures and adjustable details like pieces with a low front and high back.
  • Consumers can choose seated styles that feature a lower front rise to reduce bunching and a higher back, free of pockets and seams, for a more comfortable fit.
  • Hidden magnetic closures replace traditional buttons, helping those individuals with limited dexterity.
  • Hems may be adjusted up to four inches, accounting for variations in height while sitting or standing.
  • Easy-open necklines with magnetic openings hidden at the shoulders or at the back make on-and-off wear for those with limited mobility far less complicated.
  • Adjustable Waistband
    Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive

    Magnetic openings at the outside seam of pants accommodate wearers with leg braces and orthotics.

  • One-handed zippers are magnetized at the base, giving wearers with limited dexterity the ability to zip and unzip with ease.
  • Hidden touch fasteners at the side seam improve access and make dressing easier.
  • Finally, an internal button and elastic loop closure allows for a more comfortable, adjustable fit on waistbands.

In an interview, Tommy Hilfiger said, “Inclusivity and the democratization of fashion have always been at the core of our brand’s DNA. Tommy Adaptive continues to build on that vision, empowering people to express themselves through fashion.”

The campaign for the Tommy Hilfiger 2018 adaptive collection features several influencers, including Paralympian gold medalist Jeremy Campbell wearing jeans that can be adjusted and pulled over his prosthetic leg; fashion blogger and model Mama Cax’s trendy trench coat that complements her innovative prosthetic leg; and dancer Chelsie Hill, whose striped dress has magnetic closures to accommodate her sitting in a wheelchair.


Mom designer gets inspired

Then there’s the Universal Thread collection at Target, the new adaptive clothing collection design-engineered to fit the needs of more women.

From jeans with wider legs to tops with hidden openings for abdominal access, getting dressed becomes much easier. And flat seams, heat-stamped labels instead of tags and soft fabrics make the collection’s tops and bottoms totally sensory-friendly.

Sensory issues were also the impetus for the expansion of Target’s very-popular Cat & Jack brand of kids’ clothing.

A child with sensory processing issues may have an aversion to noise, light, shoes that are too tight or clothes that are irritating. Sensory processing disorders may trigger tantrums when trying to get dressed or other extreme behaviors like dramatic mood swings or fleeing.

It started with just a few select pieces in the Cat & Jack line.

Cat and Jack line at Target
Target Cat & Jack

Stacey Monsen, a design director for Target’s plus-size line, was inspired by her seven-year-old daughter with autism who was not potty-trained and for whom she had challenges finding clothing that fit her.

“For pants or shorts, I either size way up, or buy pieces that are all function, no style,” she said.

“Why not create pieces that addressed some of those problems?” Functionality is essential – but Monsen and her team wanted the clothes to be trendy and cool, too.

“We learned sensory-friendly apparel can mean different things for different people,” Monsen said. “For these pieces, we decided to start with our core tees and leggings, and address guests’ most common requests — like removing tags and embellishments that can irritate the skin. We also added more ease through the hip and a higher rise in our leggings to fit with diapers, if needed, for older kids.”

The Cat & Jack clothing is made from extra-soft, comfortable and durable cotton knits.

First came the introduction of sensory-friendly pieces — then came the added adaptive pieces to help address the needs of children living with disabilities. Clothing includes styles with zip-off sleeves and side openings as well as pieces that open in the back for those lying down or sitting.

“As a technical designer, I’m always looking at ways to develop products that are super functional and can help many different types of people,” said Mari Anderson, principal technical designer, Kids Apparel, Target. “Our team met with real kids to understand what their needs are in different types of apparel, then put our expertise to the test to create the products. Without a doubt, this has been the most meaningful project I have been a part of.”


A step in the right direction

Inclusion. Function. Fashion. Community. That’s what says on its website about its adaptive collection — “functional and fashionable products to make life easier.”

Zappos Adaptive began when a customer’s grandson received the wrong shoes. The customer’s grandson, Gabriel, has autism and can’t wear shoes with laces due to the challenges of tying them. It has become more and more difficult for Gabriel to find footwear to fit his needs as he grows older.

Adaptive shoes at Zappos
Zappos Adaptive

The employee who helped Gabriel’s grandma, Tonya Richardson, helped create a team of Zappos employees who immersed themselves in research, education and talking with people with disabilities and their families. Zappos Adaptive aims to connect people with products that make life easier.

“I am honored and so proud that we still have companies who care about changing lives and that put their customers and employees first above the bottom line,” Richardson said.

Zappos BILLY Footwear
Zappos BILLY Footwear

Zappos Adaptive also offers BILLY footwear, inspired by Billy Price, who broke his neck in college and became paralyzed from the chest down, leaving him with limited arm and hand mobility.

An engineering student, Billy finished his degree, remastered how to drive a car, and continued to work on the one problem that always persisted — putting on shoes.

After 18 years of hard work, Billy and his long-time friend came up with a universally-designed shoe, with a zipper function that opens from one side of the shoe and goes all the way around to the front toe — the FlipTop™ design.

The design makes it easy to put the foot straight in from the top rather than sliding it in. Then the shoe closes with a gentle tug on the zipper-pull.

Zappos Billy Price
Zappos Billy Price

“It became a mission to get shoes to everybody and ensure the shoes were both stylish and functional,” Price said.

“Clothing affects how other people perceive us as well as how we think about ourselves,” said Adam Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

And it’s up to the designers and manufacturers — both large and small — to make sure people of all abilities can find clothing to fit their needs and style.

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