Five years ago, a customer called Zappos asking if she could exchange a pair of shoes.
She explained that they were for her grandson, who had autism and needed help tying the laces on his own. The employee tried to find the customer laceless sneakers but was unable to locate options in inventory.
“That sparked some internal research and learning more about customer needs and talking to people with disabilities,” said Molly Kettle, director of Zappos Adaptive — a curated selection of adaptive-wear founded in April 2017, serving as one of the fashion industry’s pioneers in providing apparel and footwear for people with disabilities.
Starting with just two brands, the online platform has expanded its assortment to feature 21 labels brought on specifically for Zappos Adaptive. The site has evolved its strategy based on feedback from social media, email and its customer service line.
Zappos also surveyed shoppers for their own stories. Those responses served as the catalyst for its latest initiative: This fall, Zappos Adaptive is launching a beta program — dubbed the Single & Different Size Shoes test — that will allow shoppers to buy only one shoe or two shoes in different sizes and widths to create a pair. They would have the ability to intermix their left and right footwear, costing about the same as a matching set. (Zappos will not charge a premium for a single shoe.)
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The pilot phase is starting with a few brands, including Nike, New Balance, Converse, Merrell and Billy Footwear. “We’re running the test to see how the response is from the community, see how we can make it work on our end,” Kettle said, “and based on the feedback we get from customers and how it goes, then we can expand it into potentially more brands.”
Measuring the Market
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four American adults, or 61 million people, live with a disability — from cognitive, mobility and sensory difficulties to more complex medical issues. A report by Coresight Research found that the global fashion market for people with disabilities could hit $288.7 billion this year and increase to nearly $350 billion by 2023. In the United States alone, that figure could reach $47.3 billion in 2019, growing to about $55 billion in just four years.
Aside from Zappos, other fashion and footwear companies have begun to identify the philanthropic and entrepreneurial opportunities of entering the adaptive business. In June, department store chain Kohl’s added adaptive lines to three of its private-label kids’ brands: Jumping Beans, SO and Urban Pipeline. The pieces, designed for babies through young adults, come with Velcro or magnetic closures, as well as strategically placed openings for medical ports or feeding tubes.
“Just because we are creating clothing for unique needs doesn’t mean that it needs to be basic,” Kara Smoltich, associate product manager for Jumping Beans, said in a statement at the time of the launch. “We have made every effort to ensure that the product looks as close to our core line as possible. Everything from graphic artwork to pocket detail is reflective of the brand.”
In the footwear arena, major players like Nike and startups such as Powerlace and Zerotie have developed hands-free sneaker innovations to serve customers with a variety of needs. (Zerotie, for instance, was established by founder Greg Johnson to assist his mother, who was suffering from arthritis and struggled to bend over to put on her shoes.)
“This is a niche market that many may have shied away from in the past, but in playing here, these brands and retailers are helping to remove the stigma of having a disability,” said Beth Goldstein, fashion footwear and accessories analyst at The NPD Group Inc. “They are realizing that consumers’ needs are wide-ranging and thus are leading fashion to be much more inclusive.”
That was one of the motivations behind Tommy Hilfiger’s adaptive collection, which the designer launched in fall ’17, marking the first time a major American fashion label offered modified apparel for differently abled consumers. “The democratization of fashion is one of the core values the brand was founded on,” Hilfiger said in an email to FN. “The collection continues to build on that vision of inclusivity, transforming the way the fashion industry defines diversity by serving the needs of people with disabilities.”
On the Right Foot
For Billy Price, creating an adaptive footwear brand was less about business and more about his personal experience.
The Seattle-based co-founder of Billy Footwear had a three-story fall when he was 18 years old, which left him with a spinal cord injury. Paralyzed from the chest down, Price struggled with simple daily tasks — such as getting dressed and putting on a pair of shoes — because of his limited mobility.
Along with business partner Darin Donaldson, he sought a solution: zippers that go along the side of the shoes and around the toe, allowing the upper of each shoe to open and fold over completely. Whether wearers had clubfoot, wore a brace or had muscular dystrophy, they could place their feet directly onto the footbed, unobstructed by the shoes’ tongue and laces.
“There are a lot of folks out there who are looking for functional shoes, and ours certainly accommodate that category,” Price said. “The way we’re approaching it is creating a shoe that has a universal design where you can bridge between the adaptive world and the nonadaptive world.”
With its patent-pending FlipTop technology, the brand eventually found its way to retailers like Nordstrom, Zappos and Kids Foot Locker. (The latter, said Price, reached out after FN published a story about the collection in 2018.)
This year, Billy Footwear is expanding into Finish Line, Macy’s, Journeys and Scheels. It also aims to release next year a shoe made of a non-tear insole material for people who wear orthotics or braces, which can rub holes inside shoes.
When Niche Goes Mass
While Billy Footwear was created to help those who have difficulty getting dressed independently, the founders said their functional yet classic sneaker silhouette has also gained support in the mainstream market.
When the brand set up a Kickstarter campaign more than three years ago, its concept included only two kids’ and women’s shoes and three men’s styles. But through crowdfunding, it raised more than $32,700, making possible the release of a full children’s collection followed by a greater expansion into the adult and toddler markets.
In July, Billy Footwear launched the toddler and adult lines on its own e-commerce site for the first time, sparking a strong consumer response. “Overnight, with no advertising, our sales tripled,” Price said. “To me, it indicates the market is hungry for solutions that incorporate universal design and inclusion, and it warms my heart knowing our brand is in the perfect position to meet the demand.”
NPD’s Goldstein echoed that sentiment, pointing to the larger opportunities for adaptive labels. “When brands focus on meeting a specific consumer need, they often create great product that appeals to a broad audience,” she said.
Take Zappos’ Single & Different Size Shoes test: By offering single and differently sized footwear, the e-tailer is also facilitating a need in the mass market — particularly among customers looking to dip their toes into the mismatched shoes trend.
To build support for the adaptive market, Zappos is working to spread the word within the industry and the greater public. In March, the company presented a special fashion show to its employees and vendor partners, created in collaboration with the Runway of Dreams Foundation, a nonprofit that participates in charitable donations, employment opportunities, design workshops and scholarship programs to raise awareness for the differently abled community.
The Zappos Adaptive fashion show featured 30 models who ranged across the age, race, gender and disability spectrums. It is also organizing another show with Runway of Dreams this September in New York.
While adaptive fashion remains a relatively untapped market, Kettle said she and her team hope that other designers will also get involved in promoting fashionable yet functional apparel and footwear.
“We do all different kinds of things, and it’s really for the purpose of spreading awareness so that we’re talking to the community we’re serving,” Kettle said. “We’re going to keep doing everything we can do to bring in more brands, encourage them to have more options and let customers know what we have.”