Unhidden: The Brand Pioneering Adaptive Fashion
Unhidden: The Brand Pioneering Adaptive Fashion
Written by By Hannah Makonnen
Creative Change Makers
Adaptive fashion is a relatively new term in the fashion industry, though it is a simple concept: clothing designed for bodies of every ability, shape and size. As the first adaptive brand to be a member of the British Fashion Council, Unhidden is a leader in its field, pushing the fashion industry towards genuine inclusivity.
Its founder Victoria Jenkins, a seasoned garment technologist with more than 14 years of experience, explains how the brand was born from her own experiences. Becoming disabled in her mid-20’s, she realised how restrictive clothing was. But it was not only a problem solved for herself, with a reported 14.6 million disabled people in the UK, it left a huge market of people without clothing that adapts to their needs, whether that creating room for a stoma, or a shirt having poppers rather than buttons.
“It was a light bulb moment” she explains, “clothes were not actually designed from a point of view of the person actually wearing it”. Since its founding in 2017, the brand has experienced a range of success’, in February this year alone, they showed their debut collection for London Fashion Week, to then be featured on Dragons Den.
Wanting to learn more about what is really involved with creating an adaptive fashion brand, we spoke to Victoria, who shared her experience, journey and hopes for the future of the industry when it comes to fully embracing the sentiment of inclusivity.
Can we start from the beginning, why did you start Unhidden clothing?
I was a garment technologist, which is essentially clothing engineering, understanding how clothes are made and ensuring the perfect fit. Then in 2012, I had an undiagnosed ulcer that burst and had to have life-saving surgery. The surgeries were continuous, removing bits of me, rewiring parts of me, leaving me with a paralysed stomach, chronic pain and a whole host of other circulatory conditions.
But, while I was in hospital, I met this other woman who had survived ovarian cancer, which affected her ability to dress the way she wanted. She was always in a t-shirt and jogging bottoms and felt like a bit of her identity had been erased. It made me realise I’d been experiencing the same thing too. I wore an orange jumpsuit on my birthday, but it was too soon after my surgery and it became painful and I had to leave. It was these experiences that led me to adaptive fashion. It wasn’t well-developed in the UK at the time and I realised how difficult it was for people like me to find stylish, sustainable, and adaptive clothing that suited our needs. I registered Unhidden Clothing as a company in 2017. People should be able to enjoy fashion, regardless of any physical limitations.
What it like for you, transitioning to clothing engineering with adaptive styles in mind?
I actually found it quite intuitive and easy to adapt my designs for accessibility. It might sound arrogant, but I had a good grasp of the concept and knew what adjustments needed to be made. It was a process of trial and error. I would use feedback from people to test out the adjustments to see if they worked or not. It’s not rocket science, really. For example, I simply added openings to sleeves by swapping out buttons for poppers or occasionally magnets.
I presumed it to be a complicated process because why else wouldn’t brands already be doing it?
Yeah, I think there’s an assumption that making clothing accessible is more complicated and expensive. Many established brands already produce jackets with zippers, which is a simple example of accessibility. If a fashion brand doesn’t have a disabled designer or someone with a disability on their team, they may not consider inclusive design. It’s often a matter of ignorance and lack of exposure to the topic.
Congratulations on your London Fashion Week debut. How did that go?
We did four rehearsals and I cried every time! 29 different models, different ages, gender, ethnicity size and ability presenting in clothes that worked for their body, it was powerful to see.
It did require a lot of preparation and flexibility as we wanted to take into account everyones varying needs. We had a quiet room and a hoist available for those who needed it. We also needed to ensure that everyone had enough time to get ready, which meant that each model only had one go on the runway. It meant the show was longer, but it was necessary. If someone needed a quiet moment or fresh air, there were always runners available to assist. It was an exhausting experience, but we were all proud of what we had achieved.
What has the reception been like?
People expressed how much they feel represented by the line. Some have even shared that they couldn’t find appropriate trousers anywhere else, so they’re grateful to finally have that option.
It’s not just about convenience either, it’s about necessity. Our clothing gives people a bit of dignity, so they don’t have to expose their body while accessing things like their stoma or chest port. For those undergoing chemo, they can sit comfortably in their shirt instead of having to wear a hospital gown or t-shirt.
I’ve had a lot of stories of loved ones who passed away from cancer, desperate to find clothes that would have been comfortable. It’s heartbreaking to hear these stories, but it reinforces the importance of what we’re doing.
How do you think the fashion industry can push this initiative forward?
It starts with normalising it. Institutions like LCF, Conde Nast, Parsons, and CSM have optional courses on inclusive design, but it should be mandated so that everyone has the knowledge and skills to create accessible clothing.
Brands should be hiring disabled talent. Not just models and not just tokenistic inclusion in campaigns. But literally, head office roles, they are super creative problem solvers. I think everyone’s missing a trick.
What’s next for Unhidden?
Our next move is to start buying small batch production so that prices can come down and shipping speeds up. We have partnerships in place, including one with Lucy & Yak where I’ll be adapting and up-cycling their unsold stock to sell on. Additionally, I have licensing rights through Paramount to create adaptive kids’ clothing featuring Paw Patrol and SpongeBob characters, which I’m very excited about. That starts next week! It’s amazing because there aren’t many character clothing series for disabled kids.
We’re also collaborating with Paralympic swimmer, Will Perry, creating a tailored range for men with short stature. I’ve been wearing the jackets myself, anyone can wear them. Most of our range is universal. If you don’t need to open up the sleeves, then you don’t have to. There’s nothing stopping non-disabled people from buying from our brand and supporting our cause.
Jenkins exemplifies the power of innovation, using her entrepreneurial success to be a catalyst for change in the fashion industry. An example to follow, ensuring that when we create, we do so with the intention of genuine inclusivity, for every age, shape and ability, with no exceptions.