By Ruvesen Naidoo
Adaptive fashion is clothing specifically designed for people living with physical disabilities. In Makhanda, knowledge of adaptive fashion seems low amongst clothing stores, but those who know what it is under its importance in a society where people struggle to find clothing that suits them.
An American August 2023 Adaptive Clothing Market Analysis report says the adaptive fashion market will surpass US$ 2,117.4 Million by 2023 because of a rising demand in adaptive clothing for patients in hospitals, and caregivers who have to dress disabled persons. Another reason for the expansion of the industry is to accommodate the growing population in disabled persons.
However, adaptive fashion has not yet been widely taken up on the African continent, the report says. This is something that the director of Upliving Disability Movement Makhanda, Thobila Nxuzula, can attest to.
Nxuzula works primarily with visually impaired people, and w is visually impaired himself. “I speak for the blind when I say that they would appreciate clothing that has words and text on it, to be in braille,” he says. This would allow blind people to build their own sense of style and support visually impaired people to dress themselves without help from caregivers.
Zwethu Ndaza, a board member in the Upliving Disability Movement says, “Upliving’s vision is to promote the independence of people living with visual impairments, and within the fashion industry specifically, more texture is needed”. This would allow blind people to differentiate between clothing items more easily, he says, adding that “feeling is the only way that blind people would know they look good, so we need more braille inclusive clothing.”
Both Ndaza and Nxuzula started fundraising in 2019 to purchase machines that would be used to produce braille-inclusive clothing, but say they were never able to raise enough funds to buy the expensive machine. Even after the movement started receiving funding from the Department of Social Development in 2020, the funding was just enough for existing projects and the payment of stipends.
As a solution, Ndaza proposes a collaboration between clothing companies and organisations to spotlight key design elements such as embroidery and texture, and create more prominence of adaptive fashion in clothing stores.
Shiba Sopotela, Head of Wardrobe and a costume designer at the Rhodes University Drama Department, says small production facilities are the reason for the slow embrace of adaptive fashion in South Africa, as well as adaptive fashion being a ‘specialised field’.
In 2015, Sopotela worked as a costume designer for Unmute dance company, a company of artists living with disabilities that created awareness of disabilities through physical theatre, contemporary and integrated dance that is based in Cape Town.
“From people that could not hear, a guy that did not have legs, to a girl that was in a wheelchair – I have worked with all,” she says, adding that her work over the years at the company reminded her of the importance of non-discriminatory values.
“For me it was working with the bodies that I have. The concept remained the same. The end product was just different,” Sopotela told Grocott’s Mail. When asked for her thoughts on the lack of adaptive fashion in clothing stores, Sopotela says it is costly for clothing companies and brands to commit to rolling out adaptive fashion and the industry often says it has not uncovered a high demand for such products. This means that disabled people have to pay high prices for tailors to alter their clothing – an option that Sopotela says is the only one for many needing adaptive fashion.
Agreeing with Sopotela, Unmute dance company Artistic Director and an Inclusive Dance teacher Nadine Mckenzie says “I think perhaps why the industry is reluctant to produce adaptive fashion lines could be, lack of experience and knowledge around disabled people and their needs, and not being around enough people with disabilities. Lack of interest or curiosity in finding out or doing the necessary research”.
Being disabled person herself, she adds, “The disability community is so large but there is still such a major gap between our community and what is perceived as the mainstream community and society. Adaptive fashion is not only about making a clothing line that is fashion inclusive, it is about catering for the needs of our shoppers and larger community” says Mckenzie.
She suggests that clothing stores could start by “creating trousers that cater for people with amputated limbs, using different fabrics for people with sensitive skin, and creating trousers that slip on and off easily for different wheelchair users. Dresses to accommodate wheelchair users, and using Velcro instead of zippers” are just some of the other things that clothing companies could do.
Grocott’s Mail approached major clothing retailers such as Ackermans, MRP and Woolworths but received no response. The factory manager of the popular Makhanda clothing store, Birch T and Company, Jason Blignaut said “We haven’t had any requests for adaptive clothing by any of our customers yet. However, Birch’s will always help wherever possible. We are students of business/product and willing to learn our customer’s needs”.
Ultimately, the experiences shared by Nxulzula, Sopotela and Mckenzie suggest that clothing retailers, employees, tailors and potential investors need to improve their understanding of adaptive fashion, and its necessity in the growth of the local fashion industry.
The South African Medical Research Council, in their Disability Data Report 2023, suggest that policies, programmes and practices, no matter where they take place within a country, need to be inclusive of persons with disabilities.
Representation of the disabled community is still important for businesses. Businesses should be encouraged to consult their consumer base, to develop their understanding of the needs of their broader target market. Retail workers should also be empowered to improve the in-store shopping experience of disabled persons.
Existing clothing brands, rather than high-cost private projects, are better positioned to launch an adaptive clothing line. But there has been little opportunity created between disability organisations and industry power players, to discuss the necessity of an adaptive clothing line.