For people with Disabilities, finding comfortable and accessible clothes is a minefield. Most fashion brands don’t consider the fact that jeans can cause sores for wheelchair users, or that people with Disabilities may require easy tube access at the side of their tops. If you want your clothes to be stylish too, it’s even harder; and adding sustainability into the equation? You must be joking.
While there’s almost 14 million people living with Disabilities in the UK alone, it seems the fashion industry has yet to catch on. Not only is it vital to provide every body with feasible fashion solutions, but it’s a good business opportunity too. So why have they been left out for so long?
While H&M and Topshop may have put the issue at the bottom of their list of priorities, one woman who’s working to change things is Victoria Jenkins. The fashion graduate, who has worked as a garment technologist for many high-street and designer brands, founded Unhidden in 2017. The slow fashion brand this month launched a capsule collection made entirely from deadstock fabrics that provides dignity, comfort and style to people with Disabilities. There are five womenswear garments and five menswear garments in the collection, and it’s clear that Victoria has designed every item mindfully and with care.
We sat down with Victoria over Zoom to hear all about Unhidden and her dreams for the brand’s future.
What inspired you to start Unhidden?
I studied fashion at Istituto Marangoni. After I graduated in 2008, I went straight into a pattern cutting role and fell into being a garment tech. My health took a dive in 2012 when I had an ulcer that burst and since then, I’ve been diagnosed with various other gastrointestinal problems, which put me under the Disabled banner. Three years ago I was in hospital, and a woman across from me was being fed by TPN and she had a Hickman line, a stoma and all sorts of tubes. Every time the doctors came to examine her, she had to take everything off and get completely naked. I thought, ‘It’s not very dignified, I’m sure there’s a better way around it.’ She said even wearing a bra was pretty much impossible. My whole job as a garment technologist is the construction of clothes, so I thought there’s definitely ways of fixing the problem and started looking into it. There was nothing available, and if there was, it was aimed at the carer looking after an elderly patient. It wasn’t stylish. On top of that, there was nothing sustainable about it.
How is the collection adaptive?
Wheelchair users need a longer backseat because trousers aren’t designed for sitting down. They dig in, but if a person can’t feel their skin it can cause pressure sores. We’ve taken off pockets and poppers at the back and we’ve taken away all the bunching that occurs at the hip and behind the knee. Trousers need a longer leg too because they hitch up when you sit down, and we’ve also put zips into the outside leg of the trousers so that you can get a wider foot through them or so the leg is easier to access. They have an elasticated waistband and two zips either side so they’re easy to get on, and the women’s pair are adjustable, so they can be undone if you’re swollen without having to flash.
The dress has got a hidden overlay, so people can access their stoma or ports without having to take their clothes off or lift the dress up, and it’s got a keyhole which covers the ports but makes them accessible. We also have shirts, which are made for people with tubes in mind. You can easily get into the sleeve without having to roll it up or take the shirt off. We’ve tried to cover as many things as we can.
As well as being practical, clothes are a form of self-expression. How can Unhidden help people with Disabilities enjoy fashion ?
We’re going to have an alteration service for customers’ existing clothes and we plan to hold free workshops to teach our customers how to adapt to their own clothes. We don’t want money to be a barrier to people getting clothes that make them feel comfortable. 80% of disabled people are not born disabled, which means they need to adapt their own wardrobe, throw it away, or even wear something that makes them uncomfortable. It just takes away their independence and it can make them feel a bit lost. I’ve spent so much time in pyjamas and stretchy clothes and I never feel dressed up or glamorous because I’m just in leggings all the time. I think it’s what makes it difficult to cross that sustainable barrier as well, because people with disabilities don’t want to spend a lot of money on something that’s still going to be uncomfortable, even if it’s better for the environment. It doesn’t matter to them as much because they just want clothes that fit them. So it was like important to me to make clothes that will work with you and for you and still look nice.
Double layer dress, £90, Unhidden – buy now
There’s a common belief that sustainable fashion can be expensive. Is Unhidden affordable?
We don’t cost thousands but I think people need to get rid of the idea of cheap clothes, because Primark is cheap for a reason. We’re paying people properly to make the product. Certain people have told me they’re worried people won’t be able to afford it, but not every person with a disability is living in poverty. The assumption is that if you’re disabled, you’re on benefits. Wanting to help people is at the core of what I’m trying to do, but I also don’t want to patronise them by being so cheap because I think that’s all they can afford. The purple pound is worth £247 billion annually; 13.9 million people in the UK are living with disabilities. Even if we got 1% of that, we’d be happy. I don’t feel the need to grow for the sake of it. just want to help people as much as I can.
What are your dreams for Unhidden’s future?
My biggest dream is to have bricks and mortar stores. They’d be fully adapted from the designs, to wheelchair space and medically trained staff. It would be like you’re like walking into Prada but for people with disabilities. The disabled community doesn’t get that sense of exclusivity. We’re also thinking of having a membership platform, because everyone wants to raise more awareness but no one really knows where to start. Why not put it all in one place so we can help each other?
How can the fashion industry be more accessible to people with Disabilities?
There need to be better HR policies in place. I have no doubt that if someone rocked up to an interview in a wheelchair or said they have one, they wouldn’t get the job. Attitudes need to change and people need think about what accessible really means. So many places say they’re proudly accessible and you get there and the door is too narrow, or there’s a little ramp that isn’t accessible for an electric chair. There’s a lot of hidden disabilities too. Don’t just use people with disabilities as tokens. It still astounds me that brands will use a model with a disability and not consider making clothes for them.
Silk shirt, £80, Unhidden – buy now
What was your experience of the industry?
I’ve lost multiple jobs and contracts because of my health. Every time that happened, I was never behind on work. I never missed a deadline. There was nothing wrong with my work either. It was just the fact I was working from home. That’s why I went freelance in the end because I thought it’d just be easier. The irony of 2020 is that suddenly everyone’s able to work remotely after I’ve been told numerous times, ‘That’s not how we work’.
What’s one thing you would change when it comes to conversations around Disabilities?
The negativity that comes with it. Disabled isn’t a bad word. When I first started using it [to describe myself], my friend was in tears and he was like, ‘You shouldn’t see yourself that way,’ but I don’t see it as a bad thing. It’s just accepting that I have limitations, and by denying them actually I do myself more harm. I spent years of struggling trying to keep up with everybody, rather than going, ‘Do you know what, I actually just can’t do it.’ This year has been a Godsend because I haven’t been forced to go out and socialise or see clients. I haven’t had that kind of bone crushing tiredness. I always push myself to burn out point when I’m working for somebody else and end up being messed up for a month, but I haven’t had that this year.
How can people be allies to the Disabled community?
To include us and consider us. If you’re at a restaurant and you notice that the disabled toilet is out of order or if there’s a step into a shop, say something. Spend a day telling yourself, ‘If I didn’t have the use of x, would I be able to do this?’ When you start to notice it, call it out. And if you have disabled friends, ask what they need. It’s really easy to forget. I have some friends who phone ahead to a venue to check they had accessible seating for me. It made me cry because it was so considerate.
Prices from £30.
Shop the collection at Unhidden.com