In 2014, Mindy Scheier’s first-grade son, Oliver, came home from school and said he wanted to wear jeans like his friends.
That simple request would prove to be a challenging one. Oliver lives with a rare form of muscular dystrophy that weakens his young body’s muscle tone. It also means that he wears sweatpants to school.
“It was the first time I was forced to make a tough decision,” recalls Scheier, who lives in Livingston, New Jersey. “I knew he wouldn’t be able to fasten his jeans if he used the bathroom and he couldn’t wear braces under his jeans. But there was no way I was telling him he couldn’t wear jeans. I had to find a solution.”
Scheier set to ripping up a pair of jeans and replacing the buttons and zippers with hook-and-loop closures.
The next day, Oliver wore the adapted jeans to school. He was beaming.
“He said that wearing sweatpants to school every day made him feel like he was ‘dressing disabled,’ ” Scheier says. “Here I was, working 20 years in the fashion industry, and I didn’t think for a minute that what you wear affects how you see yourself.”
Fashion show in Las Vegas
The revelation inspired Scheier to sell her New Jersey fashion company and start the Runway of Dreams Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the inclusion of people with disabilities in every aspect of the fashion industry.
This week, Runway of Dreams will partner with online retailer Zappos to present a first-ever fashion show in Las Vegas showcasing Zappos’ collection of adaptive clothing.
“It opened my eyes that if he was feeling this way, I can’t imagine how 60 million people experience these challenges and how that affects their confidence,” Scheier says.
Scheier researched and conducted surveys to assess the clothing needs of people living with disabilities. After a year, she determined a few commonalities.
“Almost 100 percent of people with disabilities struggle with button, snap and hook-and-eye closures. Second, clothing needs to be adjustable and have waistbands that fit differently shaped bodies. And there needs to be an alternative way to get in and out of clothing,” Scheier explains.
Pulling a shirt overhead and manipulating arm holes, for example, can be a strenuous challenge for people who lack muscle tone.
In 2016, shortly after founding Runway of Dreams, Scheier partnered with Tommy Hilfiger to help develop its first adaptive clothing line for kids. She also met with the design team behind Target’s Cat & Jack adaptive line and provided models with disabilities for its campaigns.
Zappos gets involved
Shortly thereafter, Molly Kettle, director of Zappos Adaptive, reached out to Scheier for input on an easier shopping experience for those looking for adaptive clothing.
“Mindy invited us to a Runway of Dreams fashion show in New York and we were so impressed,” Kettle says. “She joined our Advisory Council and helped connect us with brands.”
In April 2017, Kettle helped launch zappos.com/e/adaptive, which aggregates suitable products from across the Zappos website in one place.
Items include easy on/off shoes that feature hidden zippers for people who have difficulty tying laces or pushing their foot through a narrow shoe opening; super-soft reversible tops designed for children with autism spectrum disorder who may experience sensory sensitivity; and bottoms with elastic waistbands or hook-and-loop closure for individuals with limited mobility.
“We get a lot of customer response from people who are just glad they have fashionable, cute options,” Kettle says. “We hear from parents whose kids can put their shoes on for the first time and a mother whose son was able to put on a shirt without an adult for the first time at 12 years old.”
Wednesday’s fashion show will feature models with disabilities showcasing adaptive designs sold by Zappos.
RJ Mitte, whom the audience may recognize from his role on “Breaking Bad,” will host the event. Like his character on the hit TV show, Mitte lives with cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy is caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain during childbirth, Mitte explains. It generally results in a lack of motor skills. “The best way I can explain it,” he says, “is it’s like when you get a charley horse, but the whole body has that type of muscle pulling.”
Growing up, he didn’t use adaptive clothing.
“It didn’t exist,” he says. “I made it work. I bought shoes that were too big. I went to therapy to practice putting on shoes and buttoning my shirt. I had therapy every day my whole life to have the mobility I have today. But not everyone is that lucky.”
Mitte hosted a Runway of Dreams fashion show in New York in 2018. For him, hosting Las Vegas’ event was an easy decision.
“Runway of Dreams is a great movement that challenges perceptions of models and diversity,” he says. “People don’t realize what a luxury it is to tie your own shoes and button your own shirt until it’s taken away. If you want people to feel strong, empowering them to dress themselves is key.”
He stresses that accessibility isn’t limited to the needs of people with disabilities. It’s for everyone. While reversible clothing may best suit the particular needs of children with autism, most parents can relate to the challenge of finally dressing a finicky toddler — only to realize the shirt is on inside-out.
For most of the 30 models, Wednesday’s fashion show will be their first strut down a runway.
“We’re rebranding what a model is,” Scheier says. “They are people with a disability. That’s the whole point of entry. When castings are announced, we get hundreds of responses in the first couple of hours.”
“It’s about allowing individuality and clothing that fits,” Mitte says. “That’s how you change the perception of what disability and accessibility is.”
Tickets for the Zappos Adaptive and Runway of Dreams fashion show are available at eventbrite.com. The show will be livestreamed at zappos.com/e/adaptive/runwayofdreams.
What: Zappos Adaptive and Runway of Dreams fashion show
Where: The Smith Center for Performing Arts
When: Wednesday, 5 p.m., cocktails and hors d’oeuvres; 6 p.m., program and runway show