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The global adaptive apparel has huge growth potential. Here’s what you need to know.
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For many people, getting dressed for work isn’t much to think about. You go through motions like zipping your pants and buttoning your shirt without giving a second thought. But for one in five Americans living with a disability, these two small motions are often challenging, rendering typical clothing impossible to wear.
Accordingly, shopping for adaptive clothing is also challenging. Major clothing brands have historically failed at incorporating adaptive clothing into their production, making medical suppliers the main fashion source for disabled people.
The global adaptive fashion market is growing, but still has major gaps
In recent years, giants such as Target, Zappos, and Tommy Hilfiger have made powerful strides in creative more adaptive clothing options. Tommy Hilfiger’s “Tommy Adaptive” delivers “modern style with innovative modifications” including special fits for people in wheelchairs and snap buttons. Target recently introduced adaptive kids’ Halloween costumes, and Kohl’s just launched its line of adaptive clothing for kids with special needs.
With more companies recognizing the need for inclusion in their apparel and jumping on the bandwagon, the adaptive clothing market has shown great promise and is estimated by Staista to be worth over $50 billion by 2022.
But, despite the recent boom, there’s still much work to do. In their intelligence brief on the adaptive market, Prescouter shared research from FashionUnited that stated that the “apparel market is worth approximately $3 trillion globally… and adaptive clothing represents about 1% of that total market.”
Founders are continuing to recognize these gaps in the market and fill them on smaller scales, too, independently of the larger lines such as Kohl’s.
Adaptive lingerie for women
One of these founders is Emma Butler, a rising senior at Brown University, who launched her adaptive lingerie company Intimately.co last year. Recognizing how difficult it is to find lingerie and undergarments that boosts women’s confidence, she created Intimately as an aggregated marketplace that showcases all existing undergarments options on the market and uses real models to do so.
“We did a significant amount of market research, and found that the experience of shopping for lingerie was discouraging for disabled women,” Butler shared in our conversation. “The online shopping experiences are terrible — they don’t have models, have poor website design, and emanate more of a medical feel, rather than the fun and sexy websites such as ThirdLove or Victoria’s Secret.
“Intimately.co is grounded in the belief that all women deserve an empowering shopping experience, especially those that have been left out of the narrative for so long.”
And, a startup for children’s adaptive clothing and needs
Sasha Radwan is another founder who recognized a gap in the growing market. Her company is called SpecialKids.Company, which is geared specifically to children. She shared with Smithsonian.com that “there was a big gap in the clothing market where the needs of these children were not being met.” It was something she didn’t fully know until she learned of a distant relative of hers in Egypt that suffered from a disability. “We design the garments around what parents want for their children, what occupational therapists are asking for, what children are saying they’re most comfortable in.”
Many clothing companies have the opportunity to be inclusive
It’s important to note that clothing companies don’t necessarily need to create a new adaptive line in order to be inclusive; sometimes clothing stores have adaptive apparel that fits the needs of some disabled customers already and they don’t even know it. Ultra-soft clothing items without tags, for example, are sensory-friendly (which is important for people with Autism). Companies must include keywords such as “sensory-friendly”, “wheelchair friendly”, or “adaptive” in product descriptions so that these items can be found easily in a Google search.
As for why more companies don’t include cater their lines to be inclusive — well, it may be because of fear. FashionUnited interviewed Mindy Scheier, the founder of Runway of Dreams, a nonprofit that promotes disabled people in the fashion industry. When asked why there is such a delay in tapping into the adaptive market, Scheier commented, “Brands don’t want to do or say the wrong thing, or to insult. But it’s about people first.”
And, the first step to moving past the fear of insulting or misspeaking is for brands to educate themselves on their products, their markets, and their opportunities. Scheier looks forward to a future where “adaptive” is as mainstream and central to clothing options as “plus-size.”
Startups like Intimately.co and SpecialKids. Companies are proving that day may not be too far away.