Victoria Jenkins has worked on fashion lines sold everywhere from Tesco and Primark to Jack Wills and, most recently, Victoria Beckham. But the style savvy 35-year-old, from Islington, London, has been forced to spend much of her own free time living in pyjamas.
Jenkins has multiple gastro-intestinal problems that have required multiple surgeries. Her symptoms make many high street clothes uncomfortable to wear on good days – and impossible to wear when she’s recovering from surgery.
But in 2017 the designer and garment technologist quit her job at Victoria Beckham to create Unhidden, a new capsule collection of adaptive clothing for people with disabilities.
Four years of hard work and a Kickstarter campaign later, the brand has finally launched. It will even have its own pop-up shop on Oxford Street in May, making Unhidden the first adaptive brand to be sold on London’s fashion-focused high street.
The collection includes tailored trousers specifically designed for wheelchair users, a layered dress that gives easy access to stomas, and buttoned shirts that open to the whole arm. Online items are all made to order, so customers can request alternations (such as velcro instead of buttons) at the checkout.
It’s not the first range of adaptive clothing out there, but it’s a far cry for the traditional ‘pyjama-like’ options that dominate the market, says Jenkins.
“I want people with disabilities to feel like they can express themselves and that they’re included,” she tells HuffPost UK. “I’m in the community myself and I work in fashion. I just want people to feel comfortable in their own bodies and have a bit of dignity, because I think that’s been sorely lacking.”
Although Jenkins now benefits from the clothes she’s created, it was a chance meeting that sparked the idea for Unhidden, rather than her own experience. “Internalised ablism is so strong, it hadn’t even occurred to me,” she says.
In 2016, she was in hospital for 10 days while doctors monitored her diseased appendix (that was later removed), when she met a woman who’d recovered from ovarian cancer. The radiotherapy had damaged her bowels, leaving the woman with a stoma and a PICC line (for medicine) in her arm. She was in hospital to have another line fitted to her chest.
The woman had to get completely undressed every time a doctor examined part of her body, and Jenkins began thinking about how adapted clothing – with subtly placed poppers or zips – could make the whole process easier.
They got chatting about their lives – and fashion – and the woman told Jenkins she was bored or wearing the same old t-shirts. “She couldn’t dress up. There was nothing else, because she couldn’t access her own body,” Jenkins recalls.
When she started researching adaptive clothing from her own hospital bed, she was disappointed with the options available, which seemed to be marketed towards carers, rather than disabled people.
“It didn’t feel like anyone was actually asking people with disabilities what would help them,” she says. ”On top of that, a lot of it still kind of looked like hospital wear. In fact, a lot of it even now is very pyjama-looking, it’s all very stretchy and casual. There’s nothing that’s formal.”
A year later, she quit her job to start working on Unhidden alongside freelance work. Now, she’s finally launched the first collection.
“It’s formal, but you can chuck a t-shirt on with trousers too and make it look more causal,” she says. “But I wanted it to feel high-end, because I think that’s a space where people with disabilities never get to be seen.”
A few brands, including Tommy Hilfiger (as modelled by actor Jillian Mercado) have created or expanded adaptive lines since Jenkins began working on Unhidden, but no one is specifically targeting young professionals, she says.
“I think a lot of it ties into the assumption that people with disabilities don’t work, so no ones tried to make clothes for us that would be appropriate in a work setting,” she says.
“And sometimes, the fact that people can’t dress up formally means they’re not going to apply for jobs where that kind of clothing is required, because they don’t have it or it makes them uncomfortable, or it literally causes pain to wear it.”
The collection isn’t cheap, with a shirt costing £80 and a dress priced at £90, but Jenkins hopes it will be an attainable treat and tap into the so-called ‘purple pound’ (the spending power of the disabled community), which is estimated at £250bn in the UK, but largely ignored by high street brands.
Although the collection has been created for the disabled community, Jenkins emphasises that anyone is welcome to buy it (and notes that the trousers with an elasticated back may be helpful for people with period pain, too).
Sustainability is also a priority, with the collection made using ‘dead stock’ – leftover materials that would otherwise go to landfill or left at the back of a warehouse. Jenkins has utilised her industry contacts to find suitable fabrics.
It means that some of the clothes and colours – which are made in a woman-owned factory in Bulgaria where garment workers are paid above the living wage – will be limited edition.
Creating the collection has taken years of research into different disabilities and the needs of individuals. It’s a huge moment to secure Unhidden a spot alongside Oxford Street’s most recognised brands, but Jenkins’ next dream, is to get the line in concessions, or work with existing brands directly.
“I’m conscious that people with disabilities want to be included, so what they really want is existing brands to design inclusively,” she says.
“I want customers to have that luxury and feel that somebody understands what they need, and cares about why they need it.”
Unhidden’s pop-up shop will open on May 20 at 58 Oxford Street, London.
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