Since Katie Ellis (pictured above) saw her fashion-loving grandmother struggle to get dressed due to Parkinson’s symptoms, she has been using her design experience to build her own accessible clothing label for those with the condition
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I have always loved fashion. I studied design management for fashion retailing at Manchester University, UK, and then went on to work as a fashion buyer. I was fortunate enough to work across womenswear and menswear.
I’d often visit factories alongside our designers, sourcing the best fabrics, ensuring the clothes fitted perfectly and that everything was to the highest quality. This gave me great insight into the industry and enabled me to found The Able Label.
What motivated you to set up The Able Label?
When my grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s I saw first-hand how she struggled not only with dressing independently, but also with maintaining her sense of style and identity through clothes. She loved fashion and didn’t want to sacrifice this, but she also desperately wanted her independence back.
Having searched for available solutions with her, I was shocked by the lack of options. So, I decided to put my expertise to the test and solve some of the problems she faced myself.
When creating the brand, Katie wanted to design clothes that were not only adaptive, but stylish as well.
Tell us about your grandmother’s experience of Parkinson’s.
We knew something wasn’t quite right, but it took a long time for the doctors to diagnose my grandmother with Parkinson’s in 2013.
It began with her freezing – this could have been at the supermarket checkout, where she felt under pressure, or even when going from one room into the other. Dressing was also a challenge early on, as she was unable to get her arms above her head and she lost the strength in her fingers to manipulate fastenings.
Sadly, my grandmother passed away before we launched the first collection. But throughout the process, I would trial development samples on her and always asked for her feedback. Her response was extremely clear: “If you can help one other person in the position I am in, keep going.”
How does the clothing you produce benefit people with Parkinson’s who have difficulty dressing?
We have no fiddly fastenings on our clothes. We use stretchy fabrics, so they are easier to put on and take off. Other features like raglan sleeves, which have a larger area to get arms into, and slippery coat linings help with this – making them safer when dressing, especially if balance is an issue.
To help with some of the cognitive issues associated with Parkinson’s, which can include being unsure how to dress into items, we have several styles with colour-coordinated internals – to help as a visual aid for dressing the right way round.
We had one customer who was having to cut herself out of vests as it was just too difficult for her to take them off. She is now able to dress independently and no longer needs the scissors to hand! Another customer was choosing not to go out, as she feared that she wouldn’t be able to get her coat back on without asking for help. Now, she has started going out again.
Our clothes have helped to change lives, giving back independence and growing confidence – and seeing this impact makes all the hard work worthwhile.
Items from The Able Label are designed to help with a variety of cognitive and physical needs.
What specific factors do you think about when you design your clothing?
The most important thing we consider when developing our clothes is not only that they are fit for purpose and functional, but also that they look and feel great when worn. We want to create items that people would love to wear regardless of their ability or disability. This can only be achieved if there is the perfect balance of fashion, comfort and ease.
Do you feel there is enough awareness about the importance of accessible and adaptive clothing for people with conditions like Parkinson’s?
Not at all. We constantly have people say: “I wish we knew about The Able Label sooner as it would have been a huge help at a really difficult time.”
We do not have the same resources as high street retailers to help raise awareness, though we have approached several to see if they would stock our collections. The trouble is, the high street designs for the mass market, and there are more people without Parkinson’s than with it – meaning it’s not top of their priority list, despite being so very important.
People’s attitudes need to change, and I think this has to come from the industry. If there were more people with disabilities in design or retail management, there would be a greater understanding and awareness of the challenges facing so many people that are currently neglected. We want to raise awareness of the brand so that people discover us when we can prove helpful.
Need to know
Katie Ellis is based in Kent, UK, where she started her family-run business, The Able Label. She was inspired to launch the accessible clothing brand when she saw the difficulties her grandmother faced with while living with Parkinson’s. She welcomes feedback or ideas to support the development of new designs, which can be shared at firstname.lastname@example.org. Katie lives with her husband, Jason, and their daughter, Eva.
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