Over 1 billion people live with some form of disability. Yet, this is not reflected in fashion design, media, runway shows, or editorials. Unhidden is an adaptive fashion brand championing universal design and clothing for every body. And they are the first adaptive brand to ever join the British Fashion Council.
Founder, Victoria Jenkins, is a London-based garment technologist with a disability who has been in the fashion industry for 14 years. She is also the author of ‘The Little Book of Ableism’.
We caught up with Victoria to learn more about her journey and how Unhidden style with dignity while ensuring sustainability is always at their core.
Unhidden began after you had a lightbulb moment in the hospital. Tell us more.
Alongside my career in fashion, I had lifesaving surgery in 2012 after an undiagnosed ulcer burst in my stomach. This has led to multiple other surgeries and hospital stays and it was while on a 10-day stay in 2016 that a fellow patient spoke to me about her lack of choice in dressing for work and social outings, and the lack of clothing that allowed her to access her body with dignity without exposing herself. I was certain someone would be working in that space and started researching from my hospital bed. What I saw didn’t appeal to me – or to her – which ultimately led to me founding Unhidden.
What are some of the most common ways that ableism is perpetuated in the fashion industry?
The expected work ethic is pretty ableist. The idea that you must show up early and leave late to get ahead has its roots in ableism. What it implies is that our worth is only defined by our productivity and presenteeism.
Then there are the buildings of head offices and the lack of access at fashion events in general.
When it comes to marketing, alt text, captions, or sign language are not standard practice in marketing or on social media which makes content inaccessible to many people.
Finally, hiring practice. I know if I’d used the word “disabled” on my CV I wouldn’t have had the career I have had.
What are adaptive fashion and universal design?
Adaptive design is clothing that is very specifically tailored to a body type. For example, trousers designed for wheelchair users have pattern features that make them more comfortable and have easier ways of getting in.
Universal design is clothing that incorporates extra features, but that anyone can wear regardless of whether they need the features or not. These garments are designed for every body as much as possible.
Embracing universal design is more sustainable and less wasteful. Instead of making a shirt that only non-disabled people can wear, you can design a shirt that the whole world can wear. It just makes sense.
From your experience, how can the fashion industry better cater to the needs of the disabled community?
Firstly, fashion businesses need to work with adaptive designers who are knowledgeable in this space. There are lots of us and we are all passionate and highly skilled in this area.
We also need to bring in disabled creatives and voices at all levels of the industry – from designing to content creation, and event planning. We are one of the best problem-solving communities in the world!
Then there is the issue of representation. There are a billion people with disabilities in the world, yet Lloyds banking group found that disability is only seen 0.06% of the time in advertising. If 1 in 5 of us are disabled, then that should be reflected in media, in runways, in shows, and editorials, because disability will touch everyone at some point in their life. This will help people who acquire their disability – like the 70% of us who are not born with a disability – see that it isn’t all doom and gloom and that they won’t vanish.
How can able-bodied folks help to advocate for this accessible and inclusive adaptive fashion industry?
So non-disabled people need to start asking for events to be made accessible – through the inclusion of elements such as ramps – whether they need it or not. They can ask brands about their hiring practices and ask for greater representation of models with disabilities.
As a caveat, those who adopt these things shouldn’t be applauded for crumbs. We have waited too long, with too little progress, to thank you for a ramp. Accessibility is more than a ramp. Yet, simple things like ramps are still missing – so they are a quick fix that everyone can incorporate and everyone can ask for.
Why is it important to highlight women-led initiatives like Fashion Impact Fund does?
It’s important because we are doing a lot of the hard on the ground. As is well known in the industry, the ones with the power, money, and resources) tend to be men with mindsets that they are reluctant to change.
It’s my experience that the most passionate, the loudest, and the bravest people in this space are women who refuse to continue with business as usual and will do all they can to make real, lasting change happen.
What is one of the biggest myths about sustainable fashion that you hope to challenge through your work?
One of the biggest myths is that we cannot be completely transparent with our consumers and clients. I have nothing to hide. Thus, my messaging is much simpler and easier to understand.
It is, of course, more complex for large brands with multi-level supply chains. But the myth that it cannot be easily explained to consumers’ needs to be broken. Hiding our manufacturers and suppliers is what has helped brands mislead their consumers and ultimately break down the trust we have with the people we look to serve.
What is your favourite item in your wardrobe? And why?
I think the shoes I got off eBay are my favourites. One pair is from Sophia Webster and the other is from Charlotte Olympia. They are both bold, bright, and colourful. I spend so much time in my favourite colour – black – that I love to bring in some colour with my shoes and accessories.
Share one slow fashion resource for further learning.
- Cover image: Supplied by Victoria Jenkins.
- Images: Photos sourced from the Uhidden website and taken by Christian Dyson
- To learn more about Unhidden, check out their website.
- Victoria Jenkins is one of ten women fashion entrepreneurs who have been chosen for the Conscious Fashion Campaign: New York Fashion Week September 2022 edition. To learn more about the Conscious Fashion Campaign, click here.