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Does Indian Fashion Care for Disabled Consumers?

Does Indian Fashion Care for Disabled Consumers?

August 31, 2021

Even as fashion becomes more inclusive, the needs of consumers with physical and developmental challenges remains unseen

“We don't even have basic accessibility like ramps for wheelchairs everywhere in India. So, fashion, naturally, is an even bigger fight,” says Khushi Ganatra, national para powerlifter and founder of Horizon Sports Academy, who was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly. “I haven’t seen a model or mannequin that represents us. Nor have I come across great clothing options that keep our comfort, sizing and needs in mind in India.”

The inclusivity discourse in the fashion industry is on the rise, especially propelled by the pandemic and socio-political disruptions of the past year. The conversation is, for the most part, limited to size, colour and gender; persons with disabilities (PwD) are almost entirely left out of this conversation.

According to the National Statistics Office report on disability released in 2019, about 2.2 per cent of India’s population—approximately 2.68 crore people—lives with some kind of disability. The Rights of People with Disabilities Act which was introduced in 2016 identifies 21 disabilities. Is the Indian fashion industry actively thinking about them beyond occasional charity fashion shows?

“There is a lot of stereotyping at play. We tend to look at people with disabilities as charity cases or inspirational stories,” says Upasana Makati, Diversity & Inclusion advisor and founder of White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in braille. “Most fashion brands associate with a disability when they want to ‘support a good cause’. They aren’t thinking of them as a serious customer base,” she adds.

Anusha Misra, author and founder of Revival Disability Magazine (a digital media project on disability, sexuality and intersectional ableism) echoes similar views. The 23-year-old physically disabled, queer woman (Misra doesn’t believe in medicalising or pathologising her disability, steering clear of medical terms during our email interview) feels that disability in India still has a very abled gaze, and very limited representation. “As a young girl who grew up watching Sex and the City, I always thought that I'd grow up and dress like Carrie Bradshaw. So imagine my confusion when I discovered there are hardly any accessible clothes for us that are also pretty,” she says. “We need to get rid of the notion that disabled folks don't enjoy wearing colourful, sexy clothes. We want to look our best and flaunt our powerful disabled bodies in public.”

Ganatra further points out the lack of Indian options compared to inclusive brands available internationally. The latter includes several names: UGG has partnered up with Zappos Adaptive for adaptive footwear, Tommy Hilfiger has an adaptive clothing line, Care+Wear has collaborated with luxury fashion brand Oscar de la Renta on a dual-port access chest hoodie to be used post-surgery, Ffora specialises in wheelchair-attachable accessories, Intimately is a special line of disability-inclusive lingerie and Miga designs inclusive swimwear.

Inclusivity in India

Adaptive clothing includes (but is not limited to) Velcro closures or hooks instead of buttons, zippers with easy pull grabs, side zippers on trousers, open-back tops, elasticated waistlines and magnetic shoe fastenings — design elements that allow PwD to dress with ease and dignity. Accessible gowns easy to step into, hoop earrings with convenient back clasps, and straps instead of lace are some of Misra’s personal suggestions. While the scope is unlimited, the players are not.

In fact, most Indian brands for adaptive clothing have been born out of personal battles with a disability or to help a loved one. Kolkata-based Soumita Basu, for instance, launched Zyenika in 2019, a few years after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder called psoriatic arthritis. Unable to find outfits that were both functional and fashionable, she began designing buttonless kurtas, wraparound saris that can be worn lying down and mastectomy gowns, among other designs, herself. Shalini Visakan, a Chennai-based designer and alumni of National Institute of Fashion Technology, conceptualised Suvastra Designs on witnessing the difficulties faced by her wheelchair-enabled husband who is a polio survivor. Her designs include long crotches for adult diapers, bigger loops on zippers and saris that can be slipped on like a night dress.

So where have PwD been turning to so far? “My disabled friends and I create our own ‘jugaad’ to use fashion already available in the market,” reveals Misra. It is a term designer Joe Ikareth refers to as well. “They [PwD] have been using the jugaad system — and easy access to tailors in India — to make regular or oversized clothing work for them.” Ikareth and his wife Murielle started Move Ability in Kottayam in 2015 when they were seeking solutions for their daughter Tilotama who was born with a spinal cord complication called brachial plexus injury. The duo, currently in France, bring quality fabric and appealing aesthetics to clothes for people with spinal cancer, muscular dystrophy and other conditions which impair optimal movement, coupled with movement therapy. “Tweaking existing clothes works sometimes, as PwD may not always want to stand out. Our teenage daughter, for instance, wants to fit in with the kids at her school now, so we have been adapting available clothes for her,” he adds.

That said, adaptive clothing cannot be treated as a mass market product. Clothing for PwD requires research and a deeper understanding of pattern cutting. “The body compensates differently with different disabilities. So one can never make a universal left and right shoulder. But I think of it as working with one’s abilities rather than their disabilities,” says Ikareth. “The cultural stigma around disability also has a role to play here. But education is bringing about progress now. As more and more differently abled people enter the workforce, they also now have the financial power to demand better options.”

Upcycled Ikat shirt by Move Ability.

Sunayana Sahni, co-founder of Delhi-based urban womenswear brand Essé, agrees. “The prejudice attached to disabilities is immense. PwD enjoy fashion too. Only, there aren’t enough options that think of them.” After working with Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled that particularly focuses on the visually impaired, Sahni and her partner Sahib Dang overhauled their branding last year. They now recycle braille paper sourced from the NGO and National Association for the Blind for their packaging. The brand’s name, tags and labels are in English and braille. Says Sahni, “We realised that one of the main limitations for the visually impaired is identifying the front, back, top and bottom of an outfit.” So they stitch directional labels in the inner seams with braille dots embroidered on cotton. The brand is working on other samples of other adaptive clothing too. Athleisure brand Baller Athletik, founded by Tanveer Daswani, is another label which uses high-functional fabrics with a built-in Far Infrared technology that improves performance (by positively impacting energy, fitness, and recovery), can be worn by PwD for workouts or athletic pursuits while also keeping it fun with their use of colours.

Khushi Ganatra in Baller Athletik.

Are mainstream Indian brands thinking about this demographic at all? Couturier Tarun Tahiliani reveals that his label does make adaptive clothing on special request. “To be totally transparent, we have not encountered many clients with strong disabilities in our kind of fashion,” he acknowledges. “I am not of the view that people with disabilities cannot be interested in fashion but they also have many greater priorities in terms of safeguarding their overall well-being on a daily basis.” The brand has customised skirts and blouses, long flowing kaftans and dresses for their PwD clientele so far, who have mostly been wheelchair-enabled.

Designing New Solutions

Considering there is more lack than initiative in the industry, step one is creating awareness. One place to begin is at design schools where students and emerging brands can be exposed to adaptive design. Existing brands should offer capsule adaptive collections; if they do already do so, they should talk about it and normalise the concept. A more inclusive shopping experience, both online and offline, is another urgent need. Fashion, with its persona of perceived glamour and flamboyance, can be intimidating; the in-store experience should not alienate a PwD customer. Ikareth recommends communication training for store personnel. “Make PwD feel confident so that they come back to you.” Ramp access to the store, dedicated staff assistance, and access to all the collections on the ground floor are some protocols he recommends.

Makati cites the example of Viviana Mall in Thane, the country’s only mall suited for the visually impaired — amenities include a dedicated team, braille stickers in stores, and floor plans with audio tactile or sonic labelling among others. Massimo Dutti’s e-store is a great online example, she adds — their multiple accessibility features make it easy to browse for those with any kinds of disabilities.

How can other brands follow suit? Makati suggests an audit of their online accessibility, working with companies such as the Indian consulting company BarrierBreak. “Play with features like talk-back software, a pop-up with a sign language interpreter, and use alternate text to describe the outfits both on the website and on your social media,” she adds. “It will help change the narrative from just ‘I care’ to ‘I care and cater to them’. We need more voices to start a movement.”

Banner: A representational photo by Shutterstock