“I saw people in tears because they had finally discovered a brand that catered to them,” says Kat Bent, founder of Seated Sewing. “It’s the emotions of realising that somebody understands what you need and is actually doing something about it.”
Oxford Street’s first pop-up Adaptive Department Store in October brought together ten independent brands that specialise in adaptive clothing and accessories, catering to shoppers with a wide range of needs.
It shouldn’t be a radical concept, but Kat points out that bigger brands regularly miss the market opportunity in fashion for customers with disabilities. The options are so limited for many that individuals have taken matters into their own hands, learning the skills they need to create garments for themselves and for others with similar requirements.
Kat’s grandmother taught her to sew when she was young, although Kat never studied fashion or textiles and always had to alter her own trousers to suit her tall frame. When she became a wheelchair user 14 years ago, she realised that the challenges of finding clothing that fit and draped well had become even more complex.
“I used to sit on a board and go to meetings in a Max Mara suit,” Kat explains, “And then it seemed brands assumed I wanted to live in jogging bottoms. So I started buying and altering pieces, but I often had to go up three or four sizes to make it work. Some brands didn’t go up to those sizes. It just wasn’t working.”
At the same time, Kat was learning an entirely new skill set to support her son Tom, who has autism and a number of sensory processing issues. When he was young and needed key wellbeing items, she started making them for him and quickly attracted requests from other parents.
“Most commercial weighted blankets might only have 2-3kg of weight, but to get the real wellbeing benefits you need one that is 10% of your body weight. We need to go up to 10kg and make them in styles that people enjoy using,” Kat says.
From her own experience and the obvious demand, Kat developed the concept of Seated Sewing – her own brand which offers adaptive clothing for people with all kinds of disabilities. As well as garments, the brand offers accessories and ‘pamper packs’, including eye masks and pillows in Liberty fabric prints to brighten up the experience of a hospital stay.
All of the brand’s items are produced with an eye on the individual who will use them, meeting a need that most household names have not identified.
Designing and making adaptive clothing is a difficult process and even harder to do at scale. To get the right combination of functionality and style, Seated Sewing looks to performance clothing for inspiration, like pieces made for bikers or others who spend long periods sitting down.
The exact approach will vary depending on the needs of each customer, but virtually all adaptive garment patterns have to be cut and graded differently to a traditional product. As a result a piece that looks perfect when worn by a wheelchair user, for example, might look unrecognisable on a hanger in store.
That poses all kinds of challenges for fashion designers, most of whom are not trained with the skills to cater to this market: most of Kat’s knowledge has been built from a process of trial and error. Even so, she feels there is a clear opportunity to reach an overlooked market with the right approach.
“A lot of customers – probably more than most retailers realise – would benefit from adaptive collections and it will be massive for whoever goes first,” Kat says.
“But there’s a saying, ‘nothing for us without us’, and we need to be part of the process to get it right.
“We need designers and decision-makers with disabilities in the room, and we need to teach people about what adaptive clothing is and how to make it well.”
Projects like the Adaptive Department Store are helping brands to raise awareness as well as developing their businesses, although promoting adaptive products can be an uphill battle.
Social media algorithms will often ban adverts featuring people with disabilities, for example, which can limit brands’ reach on some of their most important marketing channels.
But for Kat, there is also plenty of work to do in forging connections with a wider network of designers and pushing for accessibility across the fashion industry.
While new popups and Seated Sewing’s online store are keeping her busy meeting those consumer needs, she is also planning collaborations with designers and companies such as Pattern Project, which is investigating how its sew-at-home, custom clothing packs can be made to fit every customer.
“If you’re not catering to customers with disabilities, 20% of your market is gone,” Kat adds. “That’s a great opportunity and I want to help people find what actually works for them.”