Back in 2013, Mindy Scheier was just a mom trying to figure out how to get her 8-year-old son in a pair of jeans.
Born with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy, he had always gone to school in sweatpants, which allowed room for his leg braces and were easy to get in and out of. But when he was eight, he had one wish: a pair of jeans.
“It was really the first time where I had to decide: Do I tell him that he can’t wear what he wants to wear, or do I solve this myself?” Scheier, who is a trained fashion designer, said in an interview. “Quickly that night I modified old jeans, and I was able to find a way to make them so he could get them up and down on his own, and have them fit around his leg braces. That was my first foray into adaptive clothing.”
After those jeans, Scheier went online to look at what’s known as “adaptive clothing” — or clothing that’s been adapted for people with disabilities — and was faced with images of people who looked nothing like her son, and clothes that looked like nothing her son needed.
“I was really shocked that everything was so medicinal and not fashionable at all,” Scheier said. “The images were of aging adults, the elderly. Those were the images coming up for adaptive clothing. I knew that we had to rebrand this image.”
In an effort to help her son, and kids and adults like him, Scheier thought immediately of combining her skill as a designer and mixing it with her passion to provide more clothing options for disabled people. Rather than build her own adaptive fashion brand, which she figured would just continue the separation between adapted fashion and mainstream fashion, she thought she could do far more good by rallying mainstream fashion herself and educating the industry.
And so in 2013, Runway of Dreams was born. Since its founding, the nonprofit has been fighting to spread knowledge about what adaptive clothing is, who people with disabilities really are and what they need from their clothing, and actively encouraging designers and brands to invest in progress.
Scheier has been incredibly successful, working with Tommy Hilfiger on its first adaptive children’s clothing collection in early 2016, which featured buttons and zippers replaced by MagnaReady magnet closures, as well as pants with adjustable waistbands for wheelchair users. It’s been a bit of a snowball effect since then, with Hilfiger making a new adaptive kids collection seasonally, and companies like Target and Zappos creating their first adaptive collections for kids earlier this year. Meanwhile, Hilfiger announced its first adaptive collection of adult clothing in October.
But Scheier is still hard at work. On a day-to-day basis, Scheier and her team meet with brands, designers and even fashion students to raise awareness of what adaptive fashion really means.
“I spend a lot of time traveling the country speaking with universities and design schools, because if the next generation isn’t on board to move with this, then we’re only working as much as we can work and then it will end,” Scheier said. “We have to make sure that this continues. And the amazing thing is that this generation is so aware that companies need to start focusing on everyone.”
Runway of Dreams has scholarships for design students who want to specialize in adaptive clothing, and for design students who have disabilities themselves. It hosts workshops on adaptive clothing, hosts runway shows with disabled models and actively rallies for more models with disabilities in campaigns and on runways, with Scheier bringing her own model lookbook with her to meetings.
As Scheier explained, although it’s fantastic that disabled models have been seen at shows like Chromat, and in campaigns for Nordstrom, what she sees as a more progressive next step is disabled models modeling clothing that is actually designed for them.
“In order for this entire movement to be authentic, we have to be authentic in including the consumers that this is all based on,” Scheier said. “In previous campaigns where there were models with disabilities, like for Gap and Nordstom, that was an amazing first step, but they weren’t wearing clothing that was made for them, that had their needs in mind.”
And so that’s why campaigns like Hilfiger’s, which does star models with disabilities thanks to Scheier, feel like a step into the future. Scheier has seen the effect those kinds of campaigns can have on those models too.
“We were doing a first fit session for Tommy, and we brought in quite a few young kids and teens to try on the product,” Scheier recalled. “One of the boys was 15 years old, had been in a wheelchair his whole life, and tried on one of the shirts with the magnetic shirt buttons and he looked at me, and he said, ‘You know I’m 15 and this was the first time I’ve ever been able to dress myself?’ Fifteen years of his life and he’s never been able to put on a shirt. Fashion penetrates so deeply into people’s lives.”
That intense moment affirmed Scheier belief that not only is adaptive clothing incredibly important, but also the the next frontier for fashion. In a few years, Scheier sees designers and brands catering to people with disabilities much like they cater to people who are plus sized, or petite, or need maternity clothes. The need clearly exists, given that people with disabilities have been recognized as the world’s largest minority.
“More brands will come on board to have adaptive versions of their clothing,” Scheier said. “I think this, in general, will be the next plus size. It will be viewed as a new category in the industry. And Runway of Dreams will be focusing on all of this moving at the same pace, in terms of employment in the fashion industry, representation of people with disabilities in our campaigns, helping to get the next generation to cary this on and making sure that the products get in the hands of the people that really need it.”
And how is Scheier making sure this all happens according to plan, and the mainstream fashion industry does hear her call? Education, education, education.
“It is going to take more and more education to help really make sure this movement continues, and dispels those myths about what this population looks like and what their needs are,” Scheier said. “The more we build this army to help the industry see this as a tremendous opportunity and there are so many people in support of this and need this in their life, then they can’t not pay attention.”
Years from now, if all the progress Scheier is striving for is achieved, she envisions a utopic fashion experience for people with disabilities.
“On our runways, we have models with and without disabilities together, so that we are looking at it very holistically,” Scheier mused. “Adaptive clothing in our stores that’s formatted in a compliant way, like the racks are at a level where people in wheelchairs can reach them. People working in the stores that have disabilities. Inclusion online by having the website be ADA compliant, with descriptions and copy thought of through a lens where everybody can understand what this garment looks like.”
In other words: an entirely thoughtful and inclusive shopping experience, for everyone.
In just four years, Runway of Dreams has made tremendous progress, and Scheier is hardly done yet.