In the words of her daughter Hannah, Helen Dunk has always been an “uber glamourous lady.”
“Growing up, I’d see mum every morning do her make-up, do her hair, pull on her Levi jeans and put on her stilettos, and everyone used to say she looked like she was in an 80s band,” Hannah laughs.
But when Helen was diagnosed with secondary progressive MS back in 2000, and found herself having to use a wheelchair full-time, it became a challenge to find clothes that looked great, but also ticked the practical, comfy and wheelchair-friendly boxes too.
A lot of clothes from the high-street just weren’t suitable, and then when they tried specialist shops, they were disappointed to find that, more often than not, it was all rather boring. “I found it really upsetting that we could no longer find clothing that was going to fit well and work with mum’s wheelchair but that also looked fashionable. I’d Google ‘fashionable disabled clothing’ and it would come up with an old lady with grey hair and purple fleece, and I just thought ‘no, that cannot be her life – she is still young and stylish’,” says Hannah.
Determined her mum shouldn’t be robbed of her sense of style, Hannah – who’s always had a passion for design – was inspired to launch Blossom, a new fashion label for women in wheelchairs. Hannah’s range of t-shirts come in a variety of vibrant, fun patterns – perfect for the style-savvy ladies out there, but, importantly, they also have a number of design features to ensure wheelchair-users not only look amazing but feel as comfortable as possible too.
“Mum really struggled with her belly being exposed when she was being hoisted and that really upset me, so I wanted the t-shirts to help protect her dignity. They have been designed to fit on the waistline at the back to prevent material from bunching up, and at the front the material is longer so that the t-shirts don’t ride up and expose people’s midriffs,” Hannah explains.
“They also have longer sleeves than standard t-shirts to give more coverage to the arms, and the labels are on the side rather than the neckline, because I think if you’re sat down all the time, it’s good to have things in places which won’t irritate you. They are really easy to get on and off, which was important, and I wanted them to be fitted to fit in with high street styles.”
"I’d Google ‘fashionable disabled clothing’ and it would come up with an old lady with grey hair and purple fleece"
Hannah exhibited her t-shirt designs at MS Life last year and has been overwhelmed by the positive response she’s had from the MS community. “The positive reaction has been immense and I’ve been in tears from the inbox messages people have sent me saying ‘this is brilliant’ and ‘we need more’. I honestly didn’t think there would be such a reaction,” Hannah says. “But everyone’s also been telling me all the other clothes they need too, so I will be designing jeans next as there is a huge demand for them.”
And what about Helen, what’s her favourite thing about the Blossom t-shirts? “I love how comfy they are! I didn’t want to go out the house before, but now I do.”
Hannah adds: “A lot of people when they are diagnosed with something, they can feel like they are defined by that, but MS doesn’t make you you. My mum’s still the same stylish, glamorous person she’s always been and these t-shirts show that.”
Katie Ellis tells Open Door about how she was inspired to found the Able Label, specialising in adaptive clothing for women
What was the inspiration for the Able Label?
My grandmother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and I saw first-hand that dressing was becoming increasingly difficult for her. At the time, she only needed a little extra support with dressing but hated the fact my grandfather had to help. She wanted to remain as independent as possible, keeping her dignity. She also was adamant on maintaining her style, keeping her identity – there was no way she was going to settle for anything which sacrificed either!
So together, we searched for solutions but quickly found there was nothing suitable. Nothing stylish that was designed to be put on and taken off more easily. All the easier dressing options out there were, as you can imagine - boring, beige and basic.
Appalled by the lack of options, I decided to do something about this, drawing on my experience as a fashion buyer for White Stuff. The Able Label was born to help all those in the same situation as my Grandmother - who do not want to, and should not have to, sacrifice their fashion for functional clothes.
What research did you do before launching The Able Label?
We spent over a year and a half carrying out numerous focus groups with healthcare professionals like occupational therapists as well as women who would benefit from easier dressing clothes. We would get one style made up in five different versions - narrowing it down to the most helpful design. From the feedback, we would then go through another round of sampling. This was until we had a range, which gave the perfect balance of fashion, fit and functionality. Just as important as making the clothes easier to dress was ensuring that they were great looking too – they had to be styles that people would love to wear yet also find it easier to live with.
"The Able Label was born to help all those in the same situation as my Grandmother - who do not want to, and should not have to, sacrifice their fashion for functional clothes"
How have the clothes been adapted for people with dressing difficulties?
The Able Label range has been designed to help with a variety of physical and cognitive needs and also aims to encourage self-confidence and independence. The quality fabrics, discreet adaptive designs, innovative fastenings and hidden extras make dressing easier for those who may suffer from restricted movement, lack of finger dexterity, poor balance, cognitive difficulties or who may use a wheelchair. The design of the garments has also taken carers’ requirements into account so assisted dressing should be quicker, easier and safer. Yet when they’re being worn, no one would ever know they were adapted! We appreciate that it’s often the little things in life that can make the biggest difference so attention to detail is always at the heart of everything we do.
What kind of feedback have you had from customers?
For us, hearing from our customers is absolutely invaluable as without listening to them, we cannot develop and grow. It has been extremely rewarding receiving feedback from customers praising the range and telling us how it has changed their life for the better.
Here’s just one example: “I was very surprised by the range, it is easier to dress but actually looks stylish as well. They are pretty yet practical and there is nothing else like this around.”
Adaptive clothing for all
Despite much talk recently about the power of the “purple pound” (as some people now describe the disability market), it can still be hard to find stylish adaptive clothing, particularly if you are young or a man. Here are a few organisations we have found. Do you know of any others you would recommend? Email your tips to email@example.com or share your suggestions with us on social media.