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What is adaptive apparel? Everything you need to know about the inclusive clothing trend


Eight-year-old Oliver Scheier has a rare form of muscular dystrophy. His mother, Mindy Scheier, launched Runway of Dreams to create adaptive clothing for the differently-abled community. Video provided by Helen Polise/Muthership Productions. VPC

When Roxanne Hoke-Chandler’s 19-year-old daughter was growing up she wanted to wear jeans like her peers. But having Down syndrome made finding denim that fit a frustrating challenge.

Luckily, Hoke-Chandler found a specialized company that made jeans for young people with Down syndrome.

“I thought it was the greatest thing in the world,” she said. “But the thing is, I found them because I was at a Down syndrome conference.”

Retailers and designers such as Target and Tommy Hilfiger, who launched a new adaptive clothing line at the end of March, want to bring these options to the mainstream by balancing fashion with function and offering clothes that adapt to the wearer.

Enter adaptive apparel: Clothing designed specifically for people with disabilities who find it difficult to dress independently or those with sensory issues who are sensitive to certain textures and materials. Over 40 million people have a disability in the U.S., over 14 million of which have difficulties with daily living activities such as dressing, according to a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau report.

Adaptive items use different features such as Velcro closures and magnetic buttons to make dressing easier, while still having the outward appearance of typical clothing. Other tweaks include using flat seams and replacing standard tags with tagless options to allow more comfort on the skin.

Stacy Bingle, a senior consumer trends analyst at Mintel, says adaptive apparel is a growing trend, with its breakout into mainstream retailers part of a larger shift towards inclusivity.

“It’s part of an overall trend that we’re seeing with consumers who have been underrepresented in the past are really getting a greater voice,” she told USA TODAY. “Largely, that big shift is happening because we live in a more culturally diverse society, a more ethnically diverse society and so a lot of those minorities don’t feel overlooked anymore. I feel like they’re getting a greater voice and certain brands are responding.”

Tommy Hilfiger’sTommy Adaptive Spring 2018 collection, an update of their initial October launch, features clothes for children and adults of differing physical abilities, including those with prosthesis or braces.

The line exists thanks in part to the nonprofit Runway of Dreams, who collaborated with Hilfiger on ways to best make the clothes adaptive. Some features include one-handed zippers, adjustable pant hems and MagnaReady brand faux buttons, which give the appearance of real buttons with the ease of a magnetic closure.

MagnaReady’s line of magnet closure shirts became popular through social media and now the company has garments sold in Kohl’s, Sears, Bon-Ton and J.C. Penney.

In early February, Target released its Universal Thread adaptive apparel line for adults following a successful launch of Cat & Jack’s children’s sensory- and disability-friendly line for kids late last year.

The Cat & Jack’s collection includes diaper-friendly leggings and bodysuits, outerwear with zip-off sleeves and other adaptable options. Universal Thread offers denim with flattened seams and wider legs as well as tagless tops.

Zappos.com also launched an adaptive line last year, which includes clothing such as pull-on pants and orthopedic friendly and easy on/off shoes for both kids and adults. 

Hoke-Chandler, director of the family and community engagement team for the Federation for Children with Special Needs, says before mainstream adaptive apparel options existed, she would have to suggest specialized small businesses or clothing “tricks” to families looking for adaptive options.

“I’m really glad that these companies are making it because we’re in a way of inclusion now, including other people,” Hoke-Chandler said. “It’s exciting to me that companies are thinking this way.”

Adaptive apparel not only helps children physically but socially, says Theresa Forthofer, CEO and President of Easter Seals DuPage and Fox Valley, a disability service and resource nonprofit. She is also the mother of two children with Myotonic Muscular Dystrophy and autism.

“It allows our kids to wear clothing that they see their peers wearing. My boys wanted to wear jeans but physically we struggled to find jeans,” she explained. “They were either too big and then they would fall down or they ended up wearing a lot of sweatpants. As they get older there’s more interest in order to dress in more typical clothing that they would see their friends and their peers wearing.”


Video credit: Helen Polise/Muthership Productions. “It’s okay to be different” says Brooke Davis of her Cerebral Palsy. Humankind

Uniform requirements at school and work often turn a desire to dress like your peers into a necessity, Forthofer explained. She was grateful for the dressier Tommy Adaptive line when her son started an internship.

“He’s able to wear a work uniform that looks just like any other pair of khaki pants, but he’s able to be completely independent,” she said. “And he wouldn’t have been able to do that internship or take that job if, it seems silly, but truly if it wasn’t for his ability to find adaptive pants that matched what a typical person would wear.”

Despite the options available and “tricks” embraced by the community, Forthofer says there is “without a doubt” a need for more adaptive apparel options.

“There are more options available for families with younger kids but as they age or get bigger it becomes a little more challenging,” Forthofer said.

Another issue with adaptive apparel? Cost. Tommy Adaptive ranges from $29.50 for a women’s scoop-neck tee to $210 for a puffer jacket. Pants run around $70 for adults and $50 for kids. Adaptive pants at Target average $15-20 for kids and $25-40 for adults.

When parents of children with disabilities are already dealing with doctor’s visits, special equipment and more, Hoke-Chandler has a warning for companies interested in pursuing adaptive options: “This clothing should really not cost more.”

“There’s a market for it, they do not have to charge more for these clothes,” she said.

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