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IN CONVERSATION WITH ANITA IYER NARAYAN

— JASMEEN DUGAL

Have you ever put on a shirt and found it didn't quite fit? Maybe it shrunk in the wash or perhaps your body shape changed. But what if each garment you tried on didn't fit? Or worse — it was designed in a way that you couldn't slip it on your body?! This is what a person with disability faces each day. "Clothing is not a luxury; it is a basic need'' explains Anita Iyer Narayan, Founder, Ekansh which is hosting a contest on adaptive fashion. "Shouldn't we all, including a person with disability, have the right to choose what we wear? And shouldn't garments have design elements that empower the differently abled, the injured or the aged to wear it themselves?" This advocacy for mindfully designed collections marks Indian Fashion's most recent step towards inclusion.

 

"There have been several personal and other incidents which made me realise that the absence of adaptive fashion is a real issue. Whether it is post- surgery, a broken elbow or an elder in the family, the first thing that is impacted when someone cannot choose everyday clothing, or wear a garment independently, is loss of dignity. There was a time when people who were big built or obese couldn't find garments. Today, we have brands catering to this requirement but clothing options are severely limited for the differently abled. And I couldn't help thinking: is it not possible for Fashion to cater to the diverse spectrum of people that exists within society?"

 

Her words bring me to a question: do fashion designers recognise their consumers with disabilities? "In catering to an EXCLUSIVE clientele for far too long, designers and retailers have forgotten to first cater to the diversity among humans. Perhaps that is why designing in an INCLUSIVE manner is now a challenge. When I mention adaptive fashion to people, what first comes to their mind is the idea of disabled as lesser. That's wrong! The differently abled don't want to be fixed. They want to be included! Fashion plays an important role here. We all want to look stylish and fit in with our peers! The differently abled like the same garments — just with discreet functional elements which make it possible for them to wear it, look and feel the same as all of us."

 

Do designers fail to address disability because it is not engrained in fashion education, I ask? "It is surprising that universal design is missing from the syllabus of design institutes. It is treated as a special project to be dealt with once in the entire course… to be showcased like something novel. A lot more has to be understood and acted on. Many people said to us, 'we have worked on adaptive design but the results left a lot to be desired in terms of creativity, adaptation and look'. The need of the hour is ideas that can be mainstreamed. Universal design means designing for all. While some things can be a luxury, clothes are a basic human need. The absence of choice or comfort in clothing for a person with a disability infact is ethically unacceptable. If you look around in a playground, cinema or mall, you would not even see a three per cent representation! In order for them to have confidence to step out, built spaces have to be accessible, clothing has to be accessible, education and recreation has to be accessible. We live in a world designed and built for the average, able bodied person—not with diversity in mind.''

 

Today, it is heartening to see steps being made in the right direction. ''To draw attention towards its importance, my NGO Ekansh is hosting a contest on adaptive fashion. It is not just functional; it is as much about form. Teams comprising a differently abled mentor, a design expert and three fashion students will compete for the most functional and stylish clothing. A person with disability has a saying, 'nothing about us, without us'. So there was no a doubt in my mind that there MUST be a differently abled mentor who is part of the process. And, having a design expert on the teams meant that the final product would be comfortable, wearable and stylish. Once the idea of the contest began taking shape, we received a overwhelmingly positive response!! Geeta Castelino, who I have known for a few years, jumped at the opportunity to make it work. Designer Nivedita Saboo loved the idea and is encouraging design institutions to introduce adaptive clothing in the syllabus. Rajkumari Bhatia is very supportive. Colleges have come forward. There is excitement about the potential of adaptive apparel as a full-fledged clothing category that would impact the lives of millions and cater to the community. I perceive this initiative would go far if we push it in the right direction."

 

Hosting a contest of this magnitude has its own set of challenges. "I would be conducting a sensitisation workshop once all the teams assemble for the finale in Pune. It will be short and effective. I have also sent the disability etiquette page of my NGO's website to them as part of the submission rules so that they understand how to behave around people with disability. At the finale, the differently-abled will walk the ramp and their safety is paramount. We have ensured no effort would be spared to put up a fabulous event; no compromise just because it is being organized by an NGO with a small team. We always knew making this happen was going to be a challenge because India has only just begun to understand accessibility, but I have always jumped straight into my ideas, and then learnt to swim! Another hurdle is funding. People who speak of education and empowerment seem to not see this as the first step to a long, sustainable journey. They seem to see the finale as a FASHION SHOW when what it is, is giving a person with disability, the dignity that has been missing all this while. To sensitise so many through a single contest and inviting stakeholders to participate… imagine the journey so far. And it has just begun!"

 

Penning this interview, I can't help feeling that the timing of the call- to -action for adaptive fashion is just right. There's a lot of talk about mental health and body positivity; it's about time we talk about fashion diversity. Because wearing comfortable, functional and stylish clothing is something everyone deserves.

 

Anita Iyer Narayan
Anita Iyer Narayan, Founder, Ekansh
 
18-JULY-2019
 
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