A few years ago, leaving the house to meet anyone filled Soumita Basu with dread.
“I had nothing to wear, nothing that represented me,” says Basu, who lives in Kolkata, India. Since she was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis – a painful autoimmune disorder that makes movement difficult and resulted in her using a wheelchair – about nine years ago, Basu had been dressing in oversized clothes.
The easy-to-slip-into attire that made dressing easy wasn’t necessarily flattering, however. “I didn’t feel happy in those clothes and wanted to change that,” she tells The National.
Unable to find outfits that were both comfortable and appealing, Basu founded her own adaptive fashion brand, Zyenika, in early 2020 to serve people with disabilities as well as the elderly.
Clothes you can crawl in
Zyenika’s inclusive clothing includes wraparound saris that can be worn lying down, tops that open up from the armholes for people with limited shoulder and arm movement, and kneepads in trousers to prevent bruising for people who crawl.
“I built my brand to rebel against loose clothes that keep falling off the shoulder,” Basu says.
Unfortunately, inclusive design is an exception rather than a rule in the clothing industry, as in most other sectors – despite the World Bank’s estimate that 15 per cent of the global population is disabled – and Zyenika is only one of a handful of brands in India’s nascent adaptive fashion market. According to the 2011 census, the country has at least 28.8 million people with disabilities.
A bulk of them depend on local tailors. Srilatha KS, who lives in Bengaluru, is a wheelchair user and crawls when she is at home or at events held at inaccessible venues. Like many others who live with locomotor disabilities, her clothes need to have specific dimensions. “My kurtas need to be shorter in front and longer behind for ease during crawling,” says Srilatha.
Few, if any, branded stores have accessible changing rooms, so she avoids these altogether. “Most of my purchases are made from local shops since they permit me to take the product home to try on,” she says.
Inclusion goes beyond clothing
Adaptive fashion not only applies to attire, but also to the buying experience. Conscientious labels need to ensure their stores are accessible, and can even use artificial intelligence on websites and apps so customers can virtually try on clothing before making a purchase.
“It is very important to sensitise staff at retail stores about the needs of people with disabilities and our buying capacity,” Srilatha says, noting that she is often ignored by salespeople who “feel I’m not going to buy anything”.
“Retailers can improve the online shopping experience for disabled customers by using a variety of images and videos to show the functionality of a garment,” says Monika Dugar, co-founder of London adaptive fashion brand Reset that was inspired by the needs of Dugar’s father, who has Parkinson’s disease.
Digital accessibility is crucial when it comes to online shopping. “It’s often very difficult to navigate a website, especially for those with neurogenerative diseases,” says Dugar. Managing colour contrast, describing images, captioning, simple keyboard navigation and using simple language can go a long way in uncomplicating online browsing and shopping, she says.
Reliance and responsibility
Anita Iyer, founder of disability welfare NGO Ekansh Trust in Pune, feels that in the absence of adaptive clothing brands, more tailors should be brought up to speed.
Her catalogue of more than 30 adaptive clothing designs can be tweaked and used by anyone since each person has “different needs and budgets".
"I want to reach every tailor in the country,” Iyer says.
When people can’t find a suitable and supportive tailor, they depend on their family to assist them. Sawai Singh Jatu, who lives in New Delhi, has cerebral palsy and says the only two things he can’t do himself are button his shirt and tie his shoelaces. Despite asking a few tailors to switch buttonholes with snaps or Velcro, he still needs assistance from his brothers every day to dress.
According to the Adaptive Clothing Market Analysis study published in 2018, the global inclusive fashion market is expected to be worth upwards of $390 billion in 2026. And yet, adaptive fashion lines are few and far between across the world.
Joe Ikareth, founder of Move Ability, a clothing solutions brand in Kottayam, India, says inaccessible infrastructure and transport, and the stigma associated with disability, are responsible for the low demand and slow uptake of adaptive fashion. As a result, many with physical disabilities are simply unable to go out, says Ikareth.
“Fashion is glamour-stricken,” says Varija Bajaj, founder of the inclusion-focused non-profit Varija Life and an adviser to 35 fashion schools across India. “People rarely get into fashion to solve a problem.”
In 2019, Bajaj convinced 27 fashion schools to have their students conduct primary research on the needs of people who use a wheelchair and crutches, amputees and the visually impaired, and those who have autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and ADHD. Students were meant to come up with ideas on the material, construction and comfort factor of their proposed outfits, which also needed to allow independent dressing.
However, owing to the pandemic and not enough interest from colleges, very little research took place.
“Adaptive fashion is not taught in [design] schools. With this [project], my aim was to give fashion students a chance to look at adaptive clothing as a career,” says Bajaj.
Research and development is crucial, but not forthcoming, to make room for people who have long been ignored, Bajaj says. This may explain why adaptive fashion brands are often launched by people with disabilities or their relatives.
'Dignity, confidence and choice'
Shalini Visakan, who lives in Chennai, launched Suvastra Designs to cater to the needs of her husband who uses a wheelchair. She has designed belts and loops for his clothes to ensure smoother wheelchair transfers.
Move Ability was founded to meet the needs of Ikareth’s daughter, who has had restricted movement in her hands since birth. His fashion line is also able to adapt existing clothes to meet the needs of customers.
“We make prototypes for people with different abilities,” Ikareth says. The brand’s kurta placket shirts, for instance, are made with a soft fabric in light colour tones to prevent the aggravation of any sensory issues in a person with autism.
A Suvastra shirt has Velcro on the top three buttons and sides with zips, so it can be slipped on like a T-shirt, making it easy to wear for anyone with limited movement.
Fashion designer Saakshi Mahnot, who lives in Mumbai, is working with schools for children with autism to launch Autistic Compression T-shirts, which she designed at fashion school. Based on deep compression therapy, the loops can hold weights and are distributed evenly throughout the garment to give autistic children the feeling of being held or enclosed and hence more comfortable, explains Mahnot.
Parul Sachdeva, a designer from Delhi, will soon launch an adaptive fashion line called 6 Dots for blind and visually impaired women. “During my research, I found that blind people face a problem in matching colours while dressing and prefer textured fabric,” Sachdeva says.
Her garments are colour co-ordinated, with cording and embroidery providing surface texture, and with the front and back identifiable by different numbers of buttons.
“It’s all about giving someone dignity, confidence and choice."