Does this ever happen to you?
When I go shopping and pick up an item of clothing that I like, I often have to put it back down because of a small design detail (such as an awkward button or zip). Most times, I wheel out of the store without making a purchase.
While that’s great for my bank balance, it’s bad for business.
I’m just one person but multiply my experience by hundreds, thousands, even millions. That’s how many consumers are putting clothes back on the shelf or rack each week – All because of simple design details which could have been easily tweaked in the creative or manufacturing process.
One of the unique features of inclusive fashion (the type I’ll be discussing here) is that it incorporates both function with style.
Previously, in my experience and that of many disabled people I’ve spoken with, you could only choose between one or the other – function or style.
Hospital gowns, for example are quite functional but lack style. Whereas, a business jacket for me to wear to work might look stylish but can be extremely impractical and void functionality.
So who can wear inclusive fashion? The simple answer is – ANYONE. That’s what universal design is all about.
In other words, my non-disabled friend and I should be able to each pick up identical garment (in our respective sizes) and both enjoy wearing them.
Obviously, there are some very specific design considerations for certain conditions, illnesses or disabilities and there are places that cater to this much smaller market. These consumers (I have previously been one) often require quite uniquely personalised pieces. However, that’s not the sort of adaptive fashion I’m discussing here.
Inclusive design doesn’t mean trying to be everything to everyone. But it does mean creating garments with broader appeal and we all know that a larger consumer base leads to larger profit margins. But more on that later.
First, let’s look more generally at ‘diversity’ in the fashion industry.
We are each inherently unique and, when you think about it, diversity applies to every one of us. Abilities, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, body shapes, hair colour and more define each of us as the incredible individuals we are.
The beauty of the fashion industry is that for nearly every component of the diverse melting pot that is life around us, there is a retailer out there – somewhere – to cater to it. Shops are specialising in plus-size or petite, clothes for women who need coverage for religious or health reasons, jeans made for the long and lean or shorter of stature, and garments designed for sporty vs curvy.
The list goes on.
As a passionate body image advocate and long-time supporter of body diversity across popular culture, like fashion, I’m delighted by these inclusions.
But as a disability advocate, I remain disappointed.
That’s because, when it comes to including disability in conversations around fashion, the silence is deafening.
Models and marketing talent are often presented in a variety of colours and sizes to tick the diversity box. But it would appear that disability is considered by many (especially those who are in a position to influence change) to be a far less palatable form of diversity – which is a shame, really.
It’s a shame for society and a shame for business.
Including disability in conversations around fashion and making stylish garments that are also functional is hugely beneficial to all – the individual consumer, the retailer, the wider community and the fashion industry as a whole.
So here are three of the biggest reasons that brands and labels need to incorporate elements of inclusive fashion into the design process.
Reason #1 to develop inclusion fashion: Greater turnover
Approximately 20% of the population have a disability of some kind and nearly 100% of those people are consumers. Plus, according to the law, 100% of us are required to wear clothing (at least some of the time!).
As a retailer, not catering to the physical and mental requirements of millions of potential consumers is bound to have some economic impact. Imagine boosting your turnover by 20%, just by providing a few tweaks to your fashion-forward garments that make them easier to wear?
Plus, it goes without saying that each person with disabilities has colleagues, carers, family and friends who shop with them, for them or support the brands that support their loved one.
Reason #2 to develop inclusion fashion: Positive publicity
The big brands who are creating inclusive fashion – like ASOS, Marks & Spencer (M&S), Tommy Hilfiger and River Island – are now appearing regularly in fashion, lifestyle and health publications due to their forward-thinking approach to fashion. Now, that’s good publicity and who doesn’t love some free PR!
I’ll bet a significant proportion of the non-disabled readers, as well as the disabled readers and their carers, family and friends, will click through the editorial or advertising links to check out the range and see what the fuss is about. In the world of marketing, increased clicks equals increased searchability and website traffic, which equals increased sales down the line.
In addition, new items to your retail repertoire always benefit from a campaign to help them move off the shelf, and what better message for fashion right now than body positivity. This is one topic that has got people talking (and kept them talking) for years now, and the dialogue is not likely to slow down. If you are doing something great to help more people feel beautiful in their skin, use this to your advantage.
Reason #3 to develop inclusion fashion: Be at the forefront of change
A bolstered bottom line and more hits to your website are great benefits to joining the inclusive fashion movement, but the biggest advantage of all is the important contribution your retail outlet will have to making our world a nicer place for all. This may sound a little blah after the financially focused business real-talk, but it is true.
So much work has already been done in educating people on the benefits of diversity, inclusivity and body positivity, but there is still a long way to go. As a brand, you have the power to educate, inform and shape public perceptions about disability.
So take that power and do something great. Be the change maker, the innovator, the industry leader.
I’m an optimistic realist so as much as I would like to see the fashion industry change overnight, there’s no denying that committing to creating inclusive fashion for a mass market does indeed have a few speed-bumps. They’re not impossible to get over but they will slow things down. Inclusive fashion does have its costs in time and money; focus groups, research, samples and re-grading can add up, that is no secret. But, once you have launched your first inclusive range, the benefits will come rolling in (no pun intended).