Australians driving fashion for forgotten customers

It's an area global fashion brands from Tommy Hilfiger to Target have been dabbling in and closer to home, the world of inclusive and adaptive fashion is just getting started.

"There was just this forgotten group of people…and the space has changed dramatically, in that when I started, the internet wasn't available," the founder of Petal Back clothing, Linda Dugan, says.

Petal Back clothing founder Linda Dugan. Credit:Simon Schluter

Dugan, a former fashion buyer for Myer Grace Brothers, started Petal Back more than two decades ago after designing sleepwear for her grandmother who required daily care and needed assistance to dress.

Nursing staff asked Dugan to help by cutting her grandmother's nighties up the back to help the dressing process. She went one better by designing a wrap around structure that crossed over at the back like petals.

"The nurse said, 'That is the easiest nightie I've ever put on someone'," Dugan says.

Just years before Dugan had been told while working in corporate buying not to focus on fashion lines for women over 45 because traditional retail was honing in on younger buyers.

Dugan says it was against this backdrop she realised there was a cohort of older Australians who were completely cut out of fashion. Nobody was filling that gap and the problem was even more dire for those with mobility challenges.

With a couple of thousand dollars to create a design, she started producing more easy-to-wear products when nurses called up requesting them.

In 2020, Petal Back is looking at going global, launching a specific campaign to sell to US customers.

The one-woman operation has a turnover of around $250,000 a year, with Dugan saying the focus of the aged care royal commission combined with online sales is seeing a new frontier for those designing inclusive clothes.

Petal Back products are designed to be easy to wear for customers with limited movement, but the products are also focused on protecting the health and safety of family and care staff who help with dressing.

"Unless we protect our nurses from injury, who is going to care for these people?" she says.

Dugan is one of the earliest entrepreneurs in the online selling space for accessible clothing.

It's a space that is expected to grow significantly: people with disabilities have a global disposable income worth $8 trillion, according to trend research company WGSN.

WGSN's senior editor and trend forecaster Sarah Owen told tech conference Pause Fest last week that brands are only just starting to understand the potential of creating clothing and products for those with disabilities or mobility challenges.

"Fashion lines are creating more products and services … but for the most part, nobody is yet really understanding there needs to be a wider inclusivity and representation," she said.

That looks set to change with a cohort of "market making" consumers and entrepreneurs focused on inclusive designs.

Over the past two years, Tommy Hilfiger has been one of the first movers among big brands for their adaptive range, launching products that fit prosthetics and are comfortable for wheelchair users. Other brands like IZ Adaptive have also been growing.

It's a situation EveryHuman founder Matt Skerrit calls a "tipping point".

"People are starting to realise the buying power of these consumers," he says.

The former PwC employee launched the adaptive fashion platform less than two months ago, aiming to bring global adaptive fashion lines to Australian consumers.

The site, which was launched with around $300,000 of investment from friends and family, includes women's and mens underwear, shoes and 'seated wear' designed for wheelchair users.

Matthew Skerrit (centre) wants to put styles from overseas in the hands of Australians who want them.

Skerritt says it's too early to look at revenue figures but the feedback the company has received so far has been encouraging.

"The shoes in particular seem to be a game changer," he says.

"We’re trying to improve people’s confidence and provide choice where there hasn’t been before."

Another business in the space is Special Care Clothing which was started by Yvonne Campbell fifteen years ago after her mother was in a care facility with dementia and she found there were few clothing providers outside of the US.

She has since teamed up with kids-focused brand Able Clothing and also makes designs for customers to-order based on their needs.

Campbell says the bigger problem is that families and individuals often don't know what options are out there.

"A lot of people just have no idea this is available," she says.

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