CHICAGO -- You may think nothing about putting on a hoodie when you need or want to, but for some people its design can prove difficult to manage.
Zippers that are hard to grab, pockets that don't sit in the right spot, pieces of clothing that, if you're blind, you can't tell what color they are.
Meredith Wells, a singer/dancer/writer and Lincoln Park resident is one of four co-founders of Social Surge, a new clothing brand centered on accessibility for everybody -- specifically people with disabilities and the gender nonconforming community.
The Social Surge team of people with disabilities consults on clothing designs after sharing their struggles when it comes to getting dressed. Wells said that kangaroo pockets on hoodies were problematic for people using wheelchairs, because their cellphones often fell to the ground when they had to transfer out of the chair. With that knowledge, Social Surge created the Utility and Heroic hoodies with vertical pockets to keep phones secure. The Elevate Zip Hoodie was designed with a full-length magnetic zipper so those with limited hand dexterity don't have to endure the difficulty of aligning the teeth of a traditional zipper to get it started, Wells said.
'FLIPPING THE SCRIPT'
"We build fashionable, functional garments around those needs, but even if you're not in a wheelchair you put your phone in that pocket and it's just secure," Wells said. "It's great for everyone, and that's what we really want to bring to the table -- making a garment accessible is good for everyone. It doesn't make it impossible for someone who is not visually impaired or is not in a wheelchair unable to use that garment."
Wells calls it "flipping the script" when it comes to the design process in fashion. Instead of building a T-shirt, and then trying to find a consumer, Social Surge knows the consumer and asks them: What are your struggles when it comes to getting dressed? What could you really use in a garment?
They said visually-impaired consultants have said: "I don't know which hoodie is what color when I pull it out of the washing machine once the tag is off." Social Surge's response: All of their clothing items has the color, and the brand name in Braille.
"We have a group of amazing ambassadors, accessibility consultants, and people with disabilities who have been with us every step of the process, and that's something that's different from other people trying to create clothing for people with disabilities," Wells said.
FOUNDING SOCIAL SURGE
Diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome at age 19, a form of autonomic dysfunction that affects blood circulation, Wells connected with Social Surge fellow co-founders (based in New York) a little over two years ago through Wells' YouTube channel, where the intersections of Wells' gay and disabled identities are openly discussed. But it was during college when Wells had an "aha fashion moment." Wells was quick-rigging costumes (adding snaps/Velcro/magnets to clothing to make it easier to get on for quick changes in theater productions) in the University of Massachusetts Amherst's costume shop, when realization dawned as to how simple it was to modify clothing to make it more accessible.
"I was surprised to find most clothing was not as suitable for me now that I was a wheelchair user," Wells said. "I looked around and said this is so easy, it doesn't make the production process longer, it relatively costs the same, why aren't people doing this? My theory? I don't think people think about the needs of people with disabilities unless they a) have a disability or b) know someone who has a disability, even though it's a large part of the population."
Wells knows Social Surge isn't the sole adaptive clothing line for adults with disabilities, but said what doesn't exist is clothing that is accessible to people of all abilities that isn't separated into its own category.
"I like to think of it in a similar vein to what used to be considered plus-size clothing, which had its own separate store 20 years ago," Wells said. "Fast forward to today, you don't really find as much of that -- you find all brands, having a more inclusive size range. Who wants to shop separately? Everyone wants to shop together. We want people to feel included, so we use something called universal design which is essentially designing an article of clothing that caters to the most amount of people possible."
As for the gender nonconforming population, Wells said Social Surge has gotten rid of the categorization of clothing -- no more men's and women's.
"Clothing is separated into the men's category and the woman's category but when someone is nonbinary or gender nonconforming, where do they shop?" Wells said. "Clothing doesn't have a gender inherently, but it definitely doesn't make someone who is gender nonconforming feel good to have to buy clothes that are labeled in a way that doesn't resonate with them."
Social Surge (which has an upside down A, symbolizing the mathematical notation that means "For All") is hoping to get more eyes on their push for inclusivity in fashion with its Kickstarter campaign. With a $50,170 goal, the campaign has raised $13,399 as of Thursday.
"Getting the Kickstarter funded gets these accessible garments into the hands of the 15% of the population who needs them the most," Wells said. "With a contribution of $25 or more, you are essentially preordering. By making a large purchasing order we're able to drive down the cost of each of the garments and make it at a more accessible price point, which is really important because around 25% of disabled individuals live in poverty, so making accessible clothing that's also at an accessible price point is a cornerstone of everything that we are doing."
A brand that brings together body image, identity and accessibility, Social Surge is doing something about inclusivity in fashion by using consumer input to dictate its designs.
"We're always wanting to hear from people, if they feel that there's something missing," Wells said. "We want to make it as accessible to the most amount of people possible."