Inclusiveness is an ongoing issue for the fashion industry. Fashion models tend to be extremely tall and extremely thing, and the average wearer can find it difficult to fit into the fashion industry mold.
For consumers with disabilities, the challenges are only more pressing — which is why ASOS has suddenly found itself catching a lot of media attention for its newest addition to its line: a rainbow tie-dyed waterproof jumpsuit engineered for those who use a wheelchair for mobility. The jumpsuit was designed with input from Paralympian Chloe Ball-Hopkins, who is also the main model for the new apparel item.
Ball-Hopkins is also a BBC sports reporter and is currently in training for the Tokoyo 2020 Paralympics, having had to sit out the 2016 Rio games due to an injury. She got the ball rolling, so to speak, with a single email to Asos noting that they have work to do in making their line accessible to the wheelchair community.
“To see the final product I can’t believe that we actually worked in conjunction so much. I thought maybe they’d take it and run with it,” Ball-Hopkins told the BBC. “You get the same version whether it’s you or I buying it — that’s the point. It is exactly the same for me as it is for you.”
The idea for the fashion item came from an unfortunately experience: getting really, really wet at an outdoor music festival. She described the look she came away from the festival with was something like a soaked grandmother, taken out for a day trip gone wrong.
The all-in-one jumpsuit unzips at the waist, making it easy for someone in a chair to take off a portion of the outfit depending on the need. The ankles are also cuffed — so “not only is that good for people with different heights, it also means it’s easy to put wellies on,” Ball-Hopkins noted, using the British term for rain boots.
It also comes with a waterproof breast pocket, making things like phones, medication or important informaiton more accessible to the wearer. Moreover, Ball-Hopkins noted, the owner can all be confident that whatever it is that they need to carry on them actually remains dry.
“It was just literally those little tiny details that make the difference to people like me,” Ball-Hopkins said. “We don’t want to have to look like we’re just doing practicality, we still want to be able to look fashionable.”
Beyond being useful, the product also serves to make disabled people more visible to a fashion world that often doesn’t see or consider them. Even things that most people able to walk take for granted, like being able to easily shop in a store, can represent challenges to someone in a chair trying to navigate a store with aisles that are too narrow for practical use. Ball-Hopkins, who was born with a condition that requires the use of a wheelchair most of the time, notes that while shopping online can help with some of these issues, it is at best a partial solution.
Chloe was born with no hips and her feet twisted up to her shins, and although she’s had corrective surgery she still has to use a wheelchair most of the time.
“It’s hard to see a product on a model if you don’t see yourself reflected in it,” Chloe said.
The move by Asos has elicited no small amount of praise. One disability activist said on Twitter that the new release “removes the stigma around disabled people,” while disability charity Scope noted that it is “great to see big brands like Asos tapping into the disabled consumer market.”
“Disabled people and their families in the U.K. have an enormous spending power — dubbed the ‘Purple Pound’ — of £250bin a year,” said James Taylor, head of policy and public affairs at Scope. “We hope moves like this will lead the way for other businesses, challenging attitudes towards disability to open fashion up for everyone.”
And appealing to those with disabilities is not an entirely new play for Asos: the brand opened up 2018 with a an active-wear campaign with Mama Cax, a model who had her leg amputated.
Will it have a bigger and industry wide effect?
Certain brands have pushed into the disability market — Nike notably has created footwear for people with disabilities and Tommy Hilfiger recently worked with Runway of Dreams to a create a fashion line specifically for disabled people.
But if doing good brings enough of the right kind of attention, and the attendant bump in sales, perhaps fashion will become a more accessible place after all.