The Newly Competitive Wheelchair Jean Market
Posted on August 12, 2015
Retailers will be the first to tell you the jean and denim market is experiencing a steep decline in revenue. The main culprit? Athleisure. Retailers are scrambling, making quick decisions about whether to phase jeans out in favor of a product that contradictorily marries athletic and leisure wear. Some insiders worry an athleisure bubble is forming, that it’s nothing more than a trend. But it is a quick and effective revenue bolster. So what is a retailer to do? Perhaps the answer lies in the disability community.
Rethinking an approach to denim, focusing instead on niche functional jean markets might be worth looking into. A functional jean is designed for and around a specific wearer’s need. From the title of this post, one can surmise this post will discuss the newly competitive market of wheelchair jeans. Retailers tend to turn away when the something contains one word disability, one word garment. So let’s focus instead on the functional markets of commuter and workwear jeans.
The niche functional commuter and workwear jean markets are increasing in popularity. Ok, eased in? Great. Let’s talk about Wheelchair Jeans.
The first Wheelchair Jean popped up in 2009. Before then, the only options afforded to wheelchair users were jeans intended for standing bodies. The increasing athleisure marketshare provided more options to wheelchair users. But it didn’t alleviate the need for a well fitting jean, and so another wheelchair jean brand arrived on the market. And while jeans are experiencing a steep decline in sales, wheelchair jeans are experiencing nothing but consistent growth. All while the consumers of these jeans continue to embrace the spandex cotton comfort of the athleisure pant.
Meet Heidi McKenzie, founder of Alter UR Ego (AUE)
Heidi became a wheelchair user after a car accident in 2007. Her desire to embrace life in a wheelchair led her to run for Miss. Wheelchair Kentucky in 2012. And she won. It was at the Miss Wheelchair USA pageant when Heidi experienced a lightbulb moment. In a backstage conversation with her fellow contestants, she realized she wasn’t alone in wanting to find jeans that fit. Since jeans fit differently on a sitting body, and since they are difficult to put on, Heidi hadn’t owned a favorite pair of jeans since her ‘Accident’. So she decided to make a new favorite pair of jeans.
Features of Alter UR Ego jeans include a high waisted back, a tummy control panel, pockets on the thigh, straps for ease of dress and a catheter opening. Her first jean is not a skinny jean as one might expect. Bootcut jeans tend to be a favorite for wheelchair users, many feel that it’s a more flattering fit on a seated body. Heidi’s Alter UR Ego jeans are innovative and exciting, but you need to realize she’s the new kid in town. There are two slightly more established companies. Two women, each with a background in fashion trying to mark their territory in this fledgeling market.
Meet Stephanie Alves, founder of ABL Denim
Los Angeles based ABL Denim employs the same factories and suppliers as many top designers. For instance, ABL’s WCH Jean is constructed from the same material as Diesel’s Jogg Jeans, which Diesel touts as a “cutting edge hybrid that offer the stretch of jersey and the look of denim”. Really, the only thing that separates her jean from the next is who it is intended for and society’s perceptions of that consumer. The current retail space says ‘make it work’. Stephanie’s ABL line says ‘ok, I will’.
Stephanie Alves has been sewing since the age of ten, but it wasn’t until her step sister became a wheelchair user that her alterations business began. When Stephanie began to see repeat requests, she realized jeans for people in wheelchairs could be formulaic and mass producible. Unexpectedly, the intended consumer of these jeans offered Stephanie a foot in the door to many top manufacturers and factories. Everyone wants to be a part of what she is doing. Seamstresses have told Stephanie of their deep connection to her clothing line. They understand they’re not just crafting another disposable jean. These jeans will be worn and loved. These jeans are needed.
But it’s not always easy. Stephanie’s jeans can be complex in design, which makes them difficult to manufacture affordably. Therefore anyone who works with Stephanie must be invested and creative solutions are frequently and frustratingly needed. But despite the challenges, she is succeeding. And everyone; the manufacturers, the suppliers, the consumer and even Stephanie herself continues to come out on top.
Meet Izzy Camilleri of IZ Adaptive
I’m not going to tell you much about the features of Toronto based IZ Adaptive’s jean. Like AUE and ABL denim, these jeans have been adapted to fit a seated body. IZ Adaptive’s clothing line also extends way beyond the jean. Check out the website if you would like to learn more. Instead, I would like to focus on something Izzy Camilleri mentioned. Something Stephanie and Heidi also experience. Because this concept will determine the ultimate success of the wheelchair jean market.
Izzy receives occasional emails from consumers offended by the price tag of an $89 jean. And who can blame them? Since the dawn of industrialization, the disability community has grown accustomed to relying on charity. It’s a common misconception that people with disabilities can not afford a $90 price tag. Industrialization taught society that certain bodies cannot contribute. But it is my belief that the modern world just hasn’t given those bodies the chance. Everybody encounters products they cannot afford. Every body encounters products they cannot afford. Izzy is not making a fortune off each pair of jeans sold. She is making just enough to allow IZ Adaptive to stay open and grow. Which is what her business is doing. It’s growing.
Charitable assumptions have made it easy for retailers to turn a blind eye to people with ‘other’ bodies. If fashion for an able body is not charity then fashion for a disabled body should not be either. To assume otherwise is to underestimate and exclude a disabled consumer. This exclusion renders the disabled body invisible. An invisible body cannot be a fashionable body. And unfashionable bodies could not possibly support a market that includes IZ, ABL and AUE. The fact that IZ has experienced constant growth since 2009 shows that her consumers need not be underestimated. Yes, they are disabled. No, they’re not invisible! Disabled persons, through their investments in inclusive products are asking to be seen. IZ is the testament that disabled bodies are not solely charitable bodies. They are governing bodies. And with the utmost confidence, I am here to tell you disabled bodies are going to change the way products are conceived. Isn’t it obvious? It’s already happening!
So the question becomes, what needs to happen?
First, wheelchair jeans need to find their way into mainstream retailers. The marketing formula of a commuter jean could easily fit a wheelchair jean model. What is a bike if not a wheel chair? According to the U.S. Census, there are 1.7 million wheelchair users, and about half as many bicycle commuters.
It’s interesting to consider the concept of a product made for a person with a disability. When a product is made inclusively, it has always found a way to benefit society as a whole. Retailers worry marketing to an elderly or disabled person will stigmatize their brand. But this is not the case. Take, for instance the Eone Bradley Tactile Timepiece. The New York Times recently reported that only 2% of timepieces sold were worn by visually impaired people, its intended market. Why? Because able bodied users love having a beautiful product that allows them to check time discreetly.
What if retailers focused on jeans intended for a sitting body? We all sit. Not just wheelchair users. What if retailers looked into the ways all people used their bodies? Athleisure pants are successful because they mold to all bodies, in all positions. But athleisure isn’t the future, it’s a temporary fix. The future is this: niche and function. It’s time to let wheelchair users lead the charge.
My name is Liz Jackson. I am an advocate and write passionately about the intersection of disability and style. This intersection is filled with beauty and stigma. I focus on the beauty and attempt to ease the stigma. I’m trying to change the world and would love your support.