LIVINGSTON, NJ - In 2014, Abercrombie and Fitch (A&F) was raked over the coals due to controversy. Mike Jeffries, then the chief executive officer, made a series of controversial statements, including this, from Out magazine: “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids…Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong.”
Since then, A&F’s stock price has fallen more than 10 percent ($32.80 to $28.50) and the company is currently trading about 37 percent below its 52-week high of $45.50—a reflection of a negative image, press, inventory and more.
There are more than 6 million differently abled children between the ages of 5 and 18, and more than 28.9 million people over age 18 who are also differently abled, who also shop for clothing.
Right now, no major designers or manufacturers in this country are actually designing for this population.
Livingston resident Mindy Scheier, whose son Oliver, 10, has a rare form of muscular dystrophy called Rigid Spine and is one of 70 cases diagnosed with this form of Muscular Dystrophy in the world, is more than aware that this population is not being served and she is doing something about it—she has started a 501c3 company called Runway of Dreams to champion this cause.
Scheier said that about two years ago, when Oliver was 8, he first started caring about what he wore to his public elementary school. He told her that he wanted to wear what the other 8-year-olds were wearing.
“He has leg braces and his body is ‘a little differently abled,’” she said. ”It was very hard to fit jeans on him.”
Mom, a fashion designer by trade, said she had to alter all of the waistbands on his clothing to make them fit.
“It was relatively easy for me to alter his clothes, but I started wondering how other people do it in situations like mine or even more difficult ones,” she said.
She was a woman with a mission.
“I decided I would start reaching out to people in the community to see if they were having the same challenges as us,” she said.
“It came back so clear that it was indeed something that was a big challenge for parents or caregivers of people with disabilities, so I realized I had to look beyond the Livingston community,” she said.
“Next, I created a survey that I floated on Facebook about clothing challenges and asked what types of disabilities people or their children had because I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just in ‘my little world,’” said Scheier.
To her surprise, Scheier began getting international responses that were very consistent across many different disabilities including muscular dystrophy to limb differences, Down Syndrome and more. She discovered that there were three major categories that were affecting clothing challenges for this population, which are: 1) The closures used (i.e. buttons, snaps, zippers, hook and eyes are hard to use); 2) The ability to adjust the clothing (i.e. waistbands, pant lengths, sleeve lengths); and 3) Alternative ways to get into clothing (i.e. putting a shirt/sweater over one’s head and getting it down requires some type of strength and without that type of dexterity or strength it is difficult).
Scheier said that she often has to help her son with getting his shirt down after putting it over his head.
She began coming up with modifications including seams up the back and magnetic closures in the back instead of having to put something over the head.
Scheier then took the findings and went to stores like Target and Kohl’s and said she “bought a slew of clothes and worked with a technical designer to modify them.” She said she did this because in talking with other families, she realized she didn’t need to recreate the wheel and start a new fashion line.
“My son, these kids and this population already feels different, and are physically different—they don’t need to have yet another thing that separates them from their peers or from what they would like to wear,” she said.
Therefore, she decided to take what already exists and modify it to be adaptive.
Next, she held focus groups at the Horizon School in Livingston, a former elementary school that has been renovated to make it entirely accessible for children with developmental disabilities and severe medical challenges. There were two focus groups for adults/caregivers of disabled children, teens and young adults and the young adults were there too. She also held a separate one for the students, which was made of half boys and half girls, with half in wheel chairs and half not.
"I started out by giving them all fashion magazines and I had them go through and tear out what they liked and wished they could wear—what they were attracted to,” said Scheier.
“It was incredibly appropriate for that stage in their life and they were no different than any other 16-year-olds, 10-year-olds or even-20-year-olds,” she said.
“They were so elated by the fact that they were able to communicate what they would have loved to wear or how they could help in making the items fit them,” said Scheier. “They loved having a voice in the world of fashion.”
Next, Scheier showed them the designs and modifications in her samples and the attendees spoke on what would and would not work. They then tried samples on and Scheier got a wealth of information from them.
“At night, with the adults, it was the same,” she said.
“I even had a family travel an hour in a monsoon to be able to participate, talk about their troubles and how important it is for there to be mainstream clothing in the marketplace for this underserved population,” she added.
The son in this family had gotten into Harvard and was in a wheelchair with a form of muscular dystrophy.
“He said, I got myself into Harvard University, I have worked so hard, and all I want to do on the first day of school is wear a pair of jeans like the other freshman—I don’t think I am asking a lot,” said Scheier. He added, “I wear sweat pants every day of my life. Please help me figure out a way. Let’s figure out a way to get jeans that look like everyone else’s that I am able to put on my body. ”
“There is such a correlation between how you feel and your confidence level in regard to what you are wearing,” said Scheier.
“I put this outfit on today and I feel like a million bucks,” said Scheier pointing to her adorable animal print dress.
“They don’t have this opportunity,” she said. “They have to just wear what they or their parents can work with.”
“Another mind-blowing thing that I learned is that they generally buy their clothes as cheap as they can because they are spending almost as much in having the clothes tailored or altered as the items cost,” said Scheier.
“They cannot just buy off the rack and wear something the same day—they need lead time from when they buy it to when they are actually wearing it and it could take upwards of over two weeks by the time they get it all modified,” she added.
Scheier said her mission is to alleviate that separation and make inclusive clothes that are already mainstreamed that stores like Target, Kohl’s and others should be carrying.
“We have petite departments, plus departments, and others—and yet we have nothing for the almost six million kids between the ages of 5-18 that have a disability in this country, and after that age the number goes to 28.9 million people,” she stated.
“The industry is missing such a huge population that is so incredibly loyal,” said Scheier. “When I find something that fits Oliver, I buy it in every color, and continue to go back to that brand because it works for him. And different from my other two children—he is not changing. So I need to find things that are tried and true and work for him.”
Scheier likened the need for this type of clothing to the purpose of an adjustable baseball hat. “I continue to say there is a reason somebody made the baseball hat adjustable—and that is so it can fit all different types of heads.”
The premise of Runway of Dreams™ is no different. The mission of the company, which is supported by the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Christopher Reeve Foundation and The Helping Hands Foundation, is to build such a swell in the community that designers, retailers and manufacturers will have no choice but to have adaptive versions of their current lines that Runway of Dreams will help them design.
According to the website, Runway of Dreams is a not-for-profit fashion company that connects differently abled youth to the world of fashion. A child or teen with physical disabilities actually doesn’t regard himself or herself as being any different than other children. Runway of Dreams empowers children to embrace and celebrate their differences, rather than it be a source of shame, through an adaptive clothing line. Runway of Dreams will collaborate with key partners in the fashion industry to develop, modify and adapt existing lines. The Runway of Dreams adaptive clothing line therefore seeks to reinforce the normalcy they experience in their own lives. The clothing will be not only extremely functional and fashionable but, affordable and sold in a major retail store for accessibility.
“I learned what I now know from the disabled community,” said Scheier. “No one can design better for them than they can.”
Scheier said that a very important part of the Runway of Dreams mission is that people from this population are involved, have a say, and that they are being heard about what works for them.
“I probably won’t find something that works for every single type of body shape and disability, but if I can make it easier by having magnetic closures instead of buttons or zippers or hook and eyes that basically closes on its own, so someone like my son can actually dress himself rather than having to have me to dress him or meet him outside the bathroom because he can’t button his pants—there are no words to describe what that would mean to him,” she said. “For Oliver, it is about independence and feeling good about himself, and from the perspective of the families that have to dress their children because they will never be able to dress themselves, if I can give that parent or caregiver 5-10 more minutes a day extra in their day because it was that much quicker to dress them—that is invaluable.”
“I have spoken to so many families, some with children who are non-communicative and will never be able to dress themselves—but they would love to have them look adorable like other kids, and that speaks volumes and there is no reason why that shouldn’t be and is really the plight of my mission,” said Scheier.
Right now, Scheier is still creating the samples that she is taking to retailers and manufacturers to show them how simple it is to do the modifications but she said she also “needs to bring this ‘army’ with me of this demographic that is saying ‘we want this, we need this and we will buy this.’”
“My big ask right now is for people to like our Facebook page, show their support, and say that they are behind this and want to see this go mainstream as well,” said Scheier.
Scheier recently met with manufacturer Fishman Tobin, which owns about 11 different brands in the children’s world including Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein Kids and Under Armor, and Scheier said “they have been amazing, feel very personally connected to this and are willing to help me to go to the designers.”
She added, “They said they will manufacture it, and will do their end, but we need the designers’ names on it to make it for the masses and to bring it to the general public—at an affordable price point.”
Scheier said her company is a 501(c)3 because she is not doing this to make money. She said, “I want this to be a necessity and for anyone who participates with Runway of Dreams to get a tax deduction. I want people who participate to have a pure and true reason to do so.”
“Every bathroom is wheelchair accessible, but we don’t have clothes that are mindful of that—it is an amazing thought,” said Scheier.
Recently, Scheier partnered with a woman who sells men’s clothes with magnetic closures. Scheier is licensing the woman’s patented washable magnets that she created because her husband has Parkinson’s and can no longer button his shirts.
“She has been an incredible advocate and is a wealth of knowledge,” said Scheier. “There is no competition; we are working together for the greater good of society.”
So far, Scheier said a public relations agency, an attorney, a printer and more professionals have taken on Runway of Dreams pro bono because they are so moved by this cause and want to help get the word out.
“It is very hard not to touch somebody like this because inevitably at some point in your life you are going to be touched by it, whether it is via an elderly person a family member or a child,” said Scheier. “At some point we will all be touched by someone with these same challenges. Things can happen to anybody at any time, and everyone wants to feel good and doesn’t want to feel even more differently than they already do.”
“People say I should start my own clothing line called Runway of Dreams but that would be the exact opposite of what I am trying to do—there doesn’t need to be yet one more different thing—there just needs to either be a stamp of Runway of Dreams approval/certification on a particular brand, or a label that says for example, Runway of Dreams by say—Target.”
Scheier said she started her modifications with clothing for children aged five and up because they are at the “I want to dress myself age.”
“Prior to that, it is easier to dress children,” she added.
“However, once we get it going, the age limit will go up, even for the elderly who want to get dressed on their own too,” she said.
Scheier beamed with joy when asked how Oliver has been affected by Runway of Dreams.
“He feels so excited that he was the reason this came about—and my older daughter, who is 12 and goes to Heritage also feels so connected to this,” said Scheier.
“She and her friend, for their Mitzvah projects, started a Runway of Dreams clothing challenge where they have challenged their friends and peers to button a shirt with one hand to see how difficult it is to do basic things like that when you don’t have your full functionality of both hands,” she said. “And it has given her such a sense of ‘oh my god I can’t imagine what my brother goes through’ and her friends are realizing how hard it is too. Her appreciation is equally as important to me as it is for Oliver to feel he was the inspiration for this because it is as important for our youth to be a part of this inclusion and feel that there is no difference—Oliver is the same as the other 10 year olds, he just has different issues than they do.”
She added, “All clothing should have accommodations/modifications so everyone is on the same level.”
Scheier said that her next steps include “looking for a pioneer to say ‘we are an inclusive company.’” For now, she is continuing to get the word out in the US and internationally to build an “army of people” saying “we need this” to prove to designers that “this is a true demographic that will buy this type of clothing.”
“It is so expensive to have a differently abled child, so I also became a 501c3 to try to keep the price point down,” said Scheier. “The magnets are not cheap, and the last thing I want to do is add costs for this population. So I will do anything I can do to help offset the cost.”
Scheier said, “Right now, I am awaiting some meetings to be set up by Fishman Tobin with designers they own the licenses with, which is way more than I could have done on my own. They are saying ‘we believe in this, we will manufacture it—and, we need you on board'.”
Other manufacturers have also been in touch with her lately.
“There is no competition and no exclusivity with this cause,” she said. “I want all companies to offer these options—but the one who comes out of the gate first to work with me on it will be the ‘hero.’