When Jane Byers fractured her arm in two places in May, she struggled to get dressed. Unable to lift her arm, she couldn’t put on any shirts that went over her head, and most of her tops were pullovers. Discovering Smart Adaptive Clothing was a game changer.

“I bought a very attractive black blouse and I love it because there are no buttons, just Velcro,” recalled Byers, 69, who lives in Dresher, Montgomery County. “I couldn’t do buttons with my broken right arm and I was fumbling with my left hand. But I could stick the Velcro together. I didn’t want my husband to help me get dressed, I wanted to get dressed myself.”

Adaptive apparel is designed to make it easier to dress for those with physical disabilities — an estimated 61 million American adults live with a disability, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The clothing is also helpful for those with health conditions, mobility, sensory or motor processing difficulties, and the caregivers who aid them.

The global adaptive apparel market has grown exponentially over the years, from about $289 billion in 2019, to a potential market of $350 billion by 2023, according to Coresight Research. That includes an adaptive market opportunity by 2023 of almost $55 billion in the U.S. alone. One recent entry into the marketplace is Smart Adaptive Clothing in Manayunk.

Nancy Connor, CEO, founded the company after drawing inspiration from her aging father.

“He was a professional who continued to wear a button-down shirt and slacks even after retirement,” she recalled. “Later in life, he went into assisted living and broke his hip, a hand, and the same hip all within about 12 months in 2015 and 2016. He needed assistance in dressing and, unfortunately, the nurses and aides didn’t want to take that added time to button the shirt and slacks.”

Though her father switched to sweatpants and pullover shirts out of necessity, Connor, 53, knew there had to be a better way. “I saw the need with my dad, the caregivers — both professional and within the family — people with many types of disabilities and even people with short-term injuries who are in rehab,” she said.

Since opening in December 2017, Connor’s business has grown from offering two men’s shirts and four women’s blouses to 12 options including shirt dresses, which cost $95 while tops run $79. Connor said her clothing’s costs are comparable to such brands as Ann Taylor.

COVID-19 slowed down the clothing industry, so Connor chose to pivot, adding six reusable face mask styles — at $12.99 apiece. They are also washable, unisex masks with extra-long elastic ear loops that help those who cannot tie the fabric or slip it over their head.

Connor credits her friend and model Vito Cosmo, former president of the Parkinson’s Council in Bala Cynwyd, for making her want to make the masks. Cosmo was living with Parkinson’s disease, which means his immune system was compromised. He fought COVID-19 for about two months and died in May, she said. His many requests “led us to the decision to offer the masks.”

Connor won’t share sales revenues. Her firm is tiny. Besides Connors, her firm employs one independent rep and one intern. But she says the enterprise is growing by currently selling on its website, smartadaptiveclothing.com, and other sites, including one in the United Kingdom. “We are about to start selling on a major online retailer" in the last quarter of 2020, she said. “I cannot share their name until we launch but everyone knows the company. We are also launching on a new platform at the end of September that has a global presence.”

Smart Adaptive Clothing's button-down shirts for people who struggle with dressing.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
Smart Adaptive Clothing's button-down shirts for people who struggle with dressing.

The company faces strong competition, including Zappos, Lands' End and Target — as well as from companies dedicated to the sector, such as Izzy Camilleri Adaptive Clothing, Able2Wear, and Easy Access.

The concept also isn’t new. Silvert’s, originally a department store chain in Toronto, got into the adaptive apparel business in 1930 to address the needs of its aging clients.

“We want to give the person options to make their life easier, to let them dress in new styles and colors, improve their self-esteem, and give them a sense of dignity and ease of dressing,” said Wendy Black, director of marketing for Silvert’s, an online and catalog company. “We want to take away the frustration and struggle, and sometimes pain, of doing this daily task.”

For someone who is wheelchair bound or can’t bear weight, adjustable snaps and overlapping panels allow clothing to be put on while seated, reducing the likelihood of falls. People with upper-arm paralysis, possibly due to a stroke or arthritis, multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, can be dressed with the help of a caregiver, without moving their arms. In the age of coronavirus, caregivers can dress loved ones from behind, limiting face-to-face contact.

Extra wide, adjustable footwear comes with easy-to-close Velcro straps, helpful for those with diabetes, neuropathy, or changes due to aging. “Many seniors need footwear that is wide enough to accommodate swelling, bunions, hammer toes and corns,” Black said. “There’s also the problem of even putting on their shoes because of reduced dexterity due to arthritis.”

Adaptive clothing can be fashionable as well as functional. A person’s dress projects confidence and the ability to either regain or maintain independence, Connor said. “You can have your dignity. If you enter a room, whether you walk in, roll in, you’re on crutches or a walker, your confidence shows. People see you and your style, not what other apparatus you may have,” she said.

Byers' arm is now healed and she can wear any top, but she still enjoys the one with the Velcro closures. “It was a temporary fix for me during a stressful time,” she recalled. “It made getting dressed and getting ready for the day easier.”