Fashionable Yet Practical: London Clothing Company's Designs Have Women in Wheelchairs in Mind

by  Kelly Rouba

Ms. Wheelchair America Kristen McCosh is a firm believer in the old adage “If you look good, you feel good.” And it certainly shows. Whether she is making a public appearance, going to work, or even just working out at the gym, McCosh always looks her best.
“If I have some dingy, old clothes on, I won’t feel as motivated. So, I try to look good for the gym as well as work,” said McCosh, who resides in Massachusetts.

But, looking stylish is often easier said than done, especially when you have a disability that impairs your mobility. “Because you can’t stand up, you have to buy bigger sizes because you have to pull and tug because your body can’t just step into (the outfit),” said Susan Rotchy, who has a spinal cord injury and is the reigning Ms. Wheelchair California.

It can also be a real hassle to put on tops or pants that have too many buttons or fasten in hard-to-reach places. And shirts oftentimes have sleeves that are so long that they get in the way while pushing or motoring a wheelchair. “For me, I can’t have really long sleeves or flowing sleeves because they’ll get caught in my wheels,” Rotchy said.

When shopping for tops, McCosh said she looks for tunic length sweaters that are long in the torso. “(Otherwise), when you are sitting down, it seems your tops always ride up in the back,” she explained.

Because Rotchy has broad shoulders and a small waist, she often resorts to shopping for tops or suit jackets in specialty stores or boutiques in an effort to find clothes that fit properly. However, there have been many times when she has had to make a trip to the tailor because she still couldn’t find an appropriate outfit that fit right.

“It would be really nice if we could get a designer that would design clothes for women in wheelchairs. We are limited to frumpy clothes. For me, I really have to search and spend (a lot of) money to find something (that looks good),” Rotchy said.

But fashion-conscious women like Rotchy and McCosh can rest easier now that Louisa Summerfield, of London, England, answered their call by taking fashion to a whole new level when she recently launched a line of clothing specially designed for women in wheelchairs. 

Summerfield, now 41, was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 9 and began using a wheelchair six years later. Although she has a background in business law, Summerfield has always had a passion for fashion and decided to create her own company WheelieChix-Chic so she could market fashionable, yet practical clothing for women in wheelchairs.

“Basically, (the decision to start WheelieChix-Chic) was based on my own personal experiences of dressing. Because I’ve got rheumatoid arthritis, dressing always becomes an issue, but also because I’m in a wheelchair,” Summerfield said.

And, like many women in wheelchairs, Summerfield often cringes at the sight of clothes marketed for wheelchair-users. “I’m also very fashion-conscious and became very aware, I think, in my late 30s, that general shops don’t even think about us. It’s a case of always making do with what is available rather than something that is specific to shape and posture and the practicalities of dressing when you are in a wheelchair. And I see it as a bit like maternity wear 15 years ago because maternity wear 15 years ago was (to) wear a baggy shirt and be done with it. So that’s how I see disabled or wheelchair-wear, whatever you want to call it, in 2007,” Summerfield said.

As the owner of WheelieChix-Chic, Summerfield hopes to send a message to clothing stores, designers, and manufacturers worldwide. “Fashion is all about feeling confident, looking great, feeling sexy—and these might not be things people associate with wheelchair women. But, it damn well should be because that’s what we are—we are women,” Summerfield said.

She also acknowledges that women in wheelchairs are a big part, and important part, of the fashion market. “Women in wheelchairs want to be sexy, they want to be elegant, (and) they want to be everything that a woman is. (Right now), there’s nobody out there reflecting this, nobody at all, within fashion,” Summerfield said.

To help her fill that void, Summerfield researched the specific needs of women in wheelchairs when it comes to attire and then sought out a designer who could create a collection based on these specifications. In response, she received hundreds of sketches from designers from around the world and eventually chose a woman named Amelia Ursache from Sweden to create the company’s first autumn/winter collection.

In a statement on her Web site, Summerfield writes, “Amelia’s designs are an inspiration (because) they are ultra feminine, chic yet sexy, and when you enter a room you won’t be remembered because of your wheelchair, but for the clothes you wear and the confidence you exude.”

“It’s very important how a woman sees herself,” Summerfield said. She knows firsthand how difficult it can be emotionally to adjust to having to use a wheelchair. “I can remember in my teenage years hating the whole world.”

Many women feel as if they have everything taken away from them after they start using a wheelchair, Summerfield added. “People look at you like you’re nothing, not as a woman.”

And that is why fashion is so important to Summerfield. “They are not just clothes, are they? They are psychological. They make you feel beautiful, confident, special. Clothes are not just clothes,” she said.

All of the outfits in the autumn/winter collection draw attention to a woman’s upper body. “I think when you are sitting down, the top part of your body becomes very important because that’s what people focus on,” Summerfield said. “When you’re standing, it’s your general body shape that takes affect. When you’re sitting, it’s very much your face, your bust, and your waist that I believe need to be accentuated.”

McCosh agrees. “I always try to emphasize from the waist up. I usually try to wear dark colored pants and skirts to try to blend into the chair,” she said.

And, just as importantly, each piece of the autumn/winter collection was created so that it would be easy for women in wheelchairs to put on. “You know our shape does change when we sit down. It is more difficult to get in and out of outfits when you sit,” Summerfield said.

To this end, Summerfield made sure that pants are not too tight in the waist. “We added secret panels, like elastic panels, around the waist in trousers and skirts, which gave flexibility and comfort. But they were hidden, (so) it didn’t look like disabled clothing,” she said. In addition, all tops have slightly wider sleeves to accommodate women who push a manual wheelchair.

Tops, as well as pants, are also made with magnetic fastenings. “For me being rheumatoid arthritic, fastenings were an issue,” Summerfield said. “(The magnetic fastenings) look like buttons because they are covered in the same fabric as the garment.”

Texture was also taken into account when selecting fabrics for the designs. In this collection, they chose to use a lot of silk, velvet, and stretch lace. “It’s all tactile stimulation, but comfortable. I think when you are sitting, flexibility in fabric is very important,” Summerfield said.

Since the launch of WheelieChix-Chic, Summerfield has found that the majority of her sales come from women in the United Kingdom, followed by those in the United States and then Europe. “My market is probably between the ages of 25 to 50,” she noted.

Summerfield also said all of her outfits are averagely priced. “(In fashion), you’ve got your cheap, your middle of the road, and the Stella McCartneys and Versaces. So, we’re kind of in the middle. The reason for that is I am only producing in quantities of 30 pieces at the most,” she said, noting that certain fabrics and fastenings also come with a heftier price tag.

But, it’s worth “spending a bit more money for something you know you are going to look fantastic in,” she added.

WheelieChix-Chic also has a wedding service that enables brides to be fitted for a custom-made gown. They have gone through so much in life to finally met someone they love and want to marry, so their wedding is a really special day and brides want to look and feel fantastic, Summerfield said. “We can offer the wedding service by post and phone. I give my customers a detailed questionnaire on their disability, size, and the color scheme and arrangements for the big day; once they have paid a 20 percent deposit, I send them sketches and fabric samples.”

Although wedding designs are not posted online, consumers can view the company’s autumn/winter collection at www.wheeliechix-chic.com or in the company’s mail order catalog. Their first spring/summer collection will be out in March. Designs range from formal/business attire to casual wear and they are available in various sizes. “I’ve started off doing a UK (size) 8, which I think is a US (size) 4, to a UK (size) 16, which is basically in England kind of between regular sizes. (In 2008), I am going to go bigger (in size), but I won’t be going smaller,” Summerfield said.

Summerfield also plans to select a new designer every year in order to keep WheelieChix-Chic’s spring/summer and autumn/winter collections fresh. Summerfield also hopes to be invited to show off new lines at fashion shows in other countries.

To help her model new fashions, Summerfield will be conducting an international search for women in wheelchairs in 2008. “We’ll be looking for models everywhere to be the new face of WheelieChix. I’m asking people to come forward, and my aim for next year is to take the fashion show to New York,” she said.

Already, the WheelieChix-Chic fashion show in London has received news exposure worldwide. In response, Summerfield’s gotten a few e-mails asking why she had women without disabilities sitting in wheelchairs to model her clothes when, in fact, all of the women were genuine wheelchair users. “They couldn’t believe these women in wheelchairs were beautiful,” she said. “And, the point is, you can be beautiful sitting down.”

For more information on WheelieChix-Chic, please visit www.wheeliechix-chic.com.

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