Nike’s newest sneaker innovation marks a big win for the adaptive market — and experts believe it could pave the way for other boldface brands to enter the burgeoning space.
This week, the sportswear giant introduced the hands-free Go FlyEase shoe — the latest in a series of groundbreaking innovations that are part of its FlyEase range of footwear, which debuted in 2015. The sneaker is equipped with a hinge that keeps it open when unused and closes up as the user slides his or her foot into the shoe. As such, it allows wearers to ditch their laces and slip into their shoes without using their hands.
“Adaptive fashion is the next wave of body positivity, and we need a global brand to put their money behind this,” said Gabriella Santaniello, founder of retail consultancy A Line Partners. “There are a lot of smaller businesses out there tapping into this market, but there is a massive opportunity for big retailers and brands, and they’re starting to understand that.”
A Universal Design
With one in four adults in the United States having some type of disability, the adaptive space remains underserved but poses a mammoth opportunity for brands and retailers. According to Coresight Research, the global adaptive fashion market is estimated to hit nearly $350 billion in 2023. In the U.S. alone, it’s expected to approach $54.8 billion within the same timeframe.
Over the past few years, a number of retailers and brands have emerged as players in the adaptive space, including Tommy Hilfiger, Marks & Spencer, Kohl’s and Target — all of whom released collections catering to the differently abled.
Zappos, on the other hand, launched a retail platform nearly four years ago dubbed Zappos Adaptive, which most recently expanded its Single and Different Size Shoes program that allows customers to buy only one shoe or two shoes in different sizes and widths to create a pair. (Among the participating brands are Vans, Brooks, New Balance, Merrell and Crocs, as well as Nike.)
However, Nike was one of the earliest innovators: In 2015, the FlyEase was born after Nike designers were inspired by the story of Matthew Walzer, a teenager with cerebral palsy. In a letter to the Swoosh, Walzer explained how his disability had made him reliant on his parents to help lace up his shoes every day.
“Slide-on shoes are a staple for many in the disability community, [and] the Nike FlyEase takes it to another level,” said Christina Mallon, board member of Open Style Lab, a nonprofit that teams up designers, engineers and occupational therapists to create accessible wearables through design and technology. “In our work, we haven’t encountered a slide-on shoe with this type of lever adaptation. This is a better way to put on shoes for everyone — not just people with disabilities. Some of the greatest innovations like touch screens and the typewriter were created because someone was designing for disabled users.”
While the FlyEase concept was billed as an adaptive solution, the new Go FlyEase sneaker has been marketed as more universal — making the style attractive for not only people with disabilities, but also those who are simply looking for an easier and on-the-go option to their daily footwear.
“What’s interesting about the new launch is that the positioning was focused more about the ease of use — for any wearer,” said Beth Goldstein, executive director and industry analyst of accessories and footwear at The NPD Group. “Designing product for consumers with disabilities leads to overall improved design, which can ultimately benefit all and make these types of products more easily accessible for those that need it.”
The Price Is Right
For people with disabilities, finding fashionable and functional pieces that are also cost-effective can be challenging. According to a study published in the Disability and Health Journal, people with disabilities already have to contend with higher costs of living compared with their able-bodied counterparts. These expenses can vary widely, from an estimated $1,170 to $6,952 every year.
“Adaptive fashion is typically cost-prohibitive. There’s only so much a person with disabilities will be able to pay — they already have so many other costs, like wheelchairs or prostheses,” Santaniello explained.
When it comes to day-to-day dressing, experts say the options for people with disabilities should be accessible in that they look good, feel good and are priced well. At Zappos Adaptive, for example, shoe prices range from $17.50 to $85. Tommy Hilfiger’s adaptive offerings are priced up to $150, while Kohl’s and Target provide more affordable options, with no adaptive items on their websites currently more than $50.
For the Nike Go FlyEase, which launches for Nike members on Feb. 15 following a wider release later this year, shoppers will have to fork over $143 — or, as Santaniello said, “priced like a normal pair of Nikes.”
“The technology is there to back it up, and [the cost] is on par with the majority of their products,” added Maura Horton, who serves as chief community officer at Global Brands Group and adaptive marketplace Juniper Unlimited, as well as a mentor for the Open Style Lab and founder of adaptive brand MagnaReady. (Horton was instrumental in developing the technology used in Tommy Hilfiger’s adaptive line.) “At the end of the day, our job as adaptive designers is to make sure there’s no visual difference between the newer adaptive products we’re creating and the products that are already existing in the market. It has to look seamless.”
It Takes a Village
Still, a lot of work could be done. According to experts, the concept of creating apparel and footwear for adaptive people should be woven into fashion companies’ DE&I strategies. Beyond just putting innovative product on shelves, fashion firms need to make sure their advertising campaigns feature children and adults with physical, cognitive and/or sensory issues. Companies need to ensure that they’re listening to and taking into account the needs of people with disabilities in the design process.
“It’s not just about technology and product innovation; it’s also about representation and communicating the seated-body perspective, the aging perspective and the illness perspective,” Horton explained. “Once we do that, I believe that more companies will enter the adaptive space.”
Such initiatives can be a hurdle for small businesses — which is why experts say it’s such a big deal that Nike is showing up for the adaptive community. Six years ago, the FlyEase franchise debuted with a wrap-around zipper solution that opened the back of the shoe near the heel counter, which made it easier to slide the foot in and out and eliminated the need to tie traditional laces. Since then, it has continued to evolve with insights from athletes across a wide range of sports, from the Air Zoom UNVRS designed by WNBA star Elena Delle Donne (whose sister lives with a disability) to the most recent Go FlyEase.
“The bigger companies move the needle quicker and faster, and they can do it from a more holistic lens, but this movement is a joint venture of everyone working together — the large businesses and those on the smaller entrepreneurial side — to share strategies and technologies that help the end user live their life fully,” Horton said. “I do think that there will be a shift at some time when all companies start designing for this market, that it will no longer be called ‘adaptive’ — just ‘inclusion.’ That’s the end goal.”