By: Jane Hanson | Link to article
The world of fashion is beginning to recognize the need for systemic change. For the one in four Americans living with disabilities, chronic pain or reduced mobility and dexterity associated with aging, shopping can be a real challenge.
Thankfully brands, particularly those beloved by Gen Z, are now seeking out inclusivity experts, like Sinéad Burke, to guide their decision making. The disabled (yes, she prefers that term) educator, advocate, author and founder and CEO of accessibility consultancy Tilting the Lens, helps brands (like Gucci!) democratize the entire purchase journey, making it equally accessible to all consumers.
Burke is among a select group of women in the industry who are leading the charge … including a real-life Emily in Paris, whose campaign to make inclusive bras began in college.
Bringing Back Self Confidence and Dignity Through Adaptive Apparel
24-year-old Emma Butler witnessed it firsthand. As a young girl, she watched her mother lose her ability to dress herself pain-free due to a chronic illness. For women like her mom, she describes the process of shopping as “dehumanizing.”
Apparel options for the disabled have existed for years, but so-called “adaptive clothing” is often more medical than modern, more sterile than sexy. And this is especially true in the world of intimatewear.
It’s one thing to find intimates that all women – including those with disabilities -can put on painlessly and with ease. But Butler knew that women of all abilities want garments that are also beautiful, and that make them feel worthy, feminine, empowered and yes, sexy.
“I asked my friends with disabilities to write about what it means to feel fashionable, beautiful, confident and sexy as a disabled or chronically ill woman.” Armed with that data, and with the help of Maddie Hyland, a lingerie industry consultant who had designed stylish collections for Vince Camuto, Jessica Simpson and Lucky Brand, Butler started Liberare, a brand that now offers chic, modern bras, underwear and sleepwear with unique fasteners, fabrics and styles to make dressing easier for all women.
“There are two aspects of our lingerie that are really powerful,” says Butler. First, they provide women with the ability to dress independently and with less pain. And also, our products are beautiful. They are made by and for disabled women and our social media campaigns focus on being disabled and beautiful. Wearing a beautiful pink or black lace bra is very empowering.”
Butler, who recently moved to Paris because of the country’s expertise in lingerie and to be closer to her supply chain as she migrates her line toward more sustainable fabrics, has caught the eye of the investment community. After finding little interest from Silicon Valley, investors in the United Kingdom and France embraced her commitment to fashionable adaptive apparel and in the fall of last year she closed her first round of financing. As the brand grows, and she continues to disrupt the $400 billion global adaptive apparel market, she will seek additional financing early next year.
Blurring the Line Between Apparel and Adaptive Apparel
“One of the greatest misconceptions that we have around products designed for this community is that in order for them to exist, they need to be functional only, which means they’re never designed with an aesthetic in mind,” says Burke. She believes companies need to design for both form and function. And those products should be marketed to all women.
And while Liberare is a bright light in an industry ripe for change, they are not the first brand to design apparel for everybody and every body.
Tommy Hilfiger was a pioneer in this space. In 2018 Tommy launched one of the industry’s first adaptive lines. “It was outerwear, which was great, but women still needed help getting their bras on,” says Butler.
Another company quick to fill the void in the market was American Eagle Outfitters’ Aerie brand of intimates, a Gen Z favorite. Back in 2018, before inclusivity and body positivity were the buzz words they are today, Aerie debuted a campaign featuring 57 unique, real customers, of all shapes, sizes and abilities, unretouched and unfiltered, wearing the brand’s bras.
“Aerie was one of the first brands to celebrate real women, natural unretouched beauty and body positivity,” explains Jennifer Foyle. The President and Executive Creative Director for AE and Aerie says the brand has been successful in redefining the standards of beauty, encouraging women to love their real selves.
And it seemed that this nod to authenticity and inclusivity really clicked with consumers. The 2018 campaign featured all kinds of women – some in wheelchairs and others with insulin pumps and ostomy bags – who were rocking Aerie bras. Feedback was so positive the brand adapted some styles to better accommodate the needs of all their customers.
“That campaign went viral because it showed what our brand stands for – real people representing our community,” says Stacey McCormick. Aerie’s Senior Vice President of Brand Marketing says offering adaptive products means all of Aerie’s community members feel heard, seen and considered. “It means they have a safe place they can go to look for things that are unique to their disability.”
“We have seen some strong brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Slick Chicks and Unhidden take up space within this market,” says Burke. “I think where we’ll see further acceleration is through collaborations that bring the expertise in supply chain of a large brand and the lived experience and expertise of those working in the startup space in order to really create systemic change.”
One such collaboration launched yesterday.
Aerie X Liberare
What happens when a gutsy young CEO of an adaptive intimates start up “cold DMs” an executive at a respected leader in inclusive intimate apparel with the same core values? You get Aerie x Liberare.
The collection, which dropped yesterday on aerie.com and liberare.co, features Liberare’s stylish adaptive bras and underwear, with unique fastening features, lace styles and a new blush color option.
“A lot of brands are interested in working with us but the energy we got from Aerie – they were authentic, they were excited, there were no ableist words thrown around. And I just thought – this is the brand for us. They are truly in this for the right reasons. This is the beginning of a really wonderful partnership,” say Butler.
And the feelings seem mutual.
“They share the value of building a brand through community and being an inclusive brand that welcomes all,” says Aerie’s McCormick. “The feedback we get is that it feels authentic, genuine and real – it’s not just a marketing play. It’s just a collection we believe in.”