Fashion’s newest frontier: The disabled and the displaced

A coat that becomes a large tent is from Anglea Luna’s graduate collection from Parsons featuring clothes for refugees.

Six years ago, Maura Horton, a housewife in Raleigh, North Carolina, received a call from her husband, Don, the assistant football coach at North Carolina State. He was on the road for a game and having so much trouble buttoning his shirt, he had to ask a player (Russell Wilson, now the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks) for help.

Don Horton had received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease four years before, and symptoms were starting to worsen.

So Maura Horton did what anyone would do these days when faced with such a problem: She searched Google for “easy-to-close shirt.” And found ... not much.

“And then I looked at my iPad cover and saw it had these really small magnets, and thought, ‘Well, what about that?’ ” she says now — a patent, a company and 22 shirt styles later.

Maura Horton (who once designed children’s wear but stopped to start her family) and her company, MagnaReady, are part of a new sub-sector in fashion: what Chaitenya Razdan, the founder and chief executive of Care and Wear, has christened “healthwear.”

The sector takes the tools and techniques (and trends) of fashion and applies them to the challenges created by illness and disability.

And healthwear is simply one part of a larger movement, in which classically trained designers (and those they work with) are rethinking the basic premise, and promise, of fashion itself. Call it solution-based design.

Though fashion is often dismissed as frivolous and self-indulgent, this growing niche suggests that rather than being part of the problem — and a symbol of the multiple divisions in society (political, personal, economic) — it can actually come up with some of the answers.

In May, for example, Angela Luna was named a designer of the year at Parsons School of Design at the New School for a graduate collection of convertible garments that used outerwear to address specific issues of the refugee crisis: shelter, flotation, visibility. So there was a hip utility coat that could become a tent, and a padded jacket that became a sleeping bag. One anorak had a built-in flotation device; another, a baby carrier.

And she followed Lucy Jones, who won designer of the year in 2015 for a collection that focused on minimal, elegant clothes for wheelchair users, taking into account both the altered proportions necessitated by being permanently seated, and the challenges of getting pieces on and off when one is physically impaired, or taking care of someone who is.

“It started when a professor of mine challenged us to do something that would change the world,” Jones said. “I thought: ‘How can I do that? This is fashion.’ ”

But then she began talking to a 14-year-old cousin who has a condition called hemiplegia, which means that one side of his body is significantly weaker than the other. He told her he was being teased at school for not being able to do up his pants by himself, and how embarrassed he was. “I couldn’t believe no one had tried to fix that,” she said. “But then I realized it was a much bigger problem.”

She met with United Cerebral Palsy of New York City and started conducting focus groups. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” she said. “Something everyone does — get dressed and undressed — should not be a challenge.”

Fashion, which was once a world defined by exclusivity has, in recent years, undergone a democratic revolution. There were clothes for the very rich, or the very skinny; clothes for insiders, for people who knew where to shop.

If the doors first opened with Yves Saint Laurent’s popularization of high-fashion ready-to-wear in the 1960s, they were thrown wide to the masses at the turn of the millennium with the advent of fast fashion, and the idea that economics should not dictate who has access to cool clothes.

From there, it did not take long for the same idea to be applied to size, age, sexuality and religion. Yet solving for the disabled and the displaced has in many ways been the final frontier.

Though advances in medical technology and legislation have created situations in which people with long-term conditions are increasingly able to be part of the work force and quotidian life, the implications that they need clothes to accommodate their physical reality have taken a while to sink in.

Manufacturing has similarly not caught up with reality, and Jones and Luna cite issues with nonstandard pattern-cutting and materials (people in wheelchairs, for example, need tops with very truncated bodies but long arms) as roadblocks to wider production.

But beyond the practical, there’s also a more fundamental issue of what, exactly, fashion is for.

Escapism has long been considered by many the point of fashion. Talk to chief executives of catwalk brands and chances are they will go on and on about “the dream.” Even when fashion has wrestled with real-world issues, it was always in the context of either fundraising (it has been active with issues like HIV/AIDS and breast cancer) or its own traditional forms: John Galliano’s controversial “Homeless” couture collection for Dior, for example, with newsprint gowns inspired by the men sleeping beside the Seine.

When Luna first became immersed in the refugee crisis, she considered transferring from Parsons to a school with a more traditional international relations program (she even applied to Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies) because she couldn’t imagine how what she was learning could be relevant. She didn’t have a model to follow.

And when she realized that her skills may have a practical application, she had to overcome the stigma of refugee chic, the assumption that she was being “inspired” by the crisis to make expensive clothes. (You can understand why: Last year, a Hungarian photographer did a widely criticized fashion shoot featuring a model in runway attire posing by a barbed-wire fence.)

But this is not about exploiting an issue, or even bringing it to broader attention. It’s about seeing fashion as a tool to ameliorate it and creating a system to help.

“Fashion has created a lot of problems, but there is an opportunity for it to be a force for good,” Luna said. “We just have to realize it.”