For every hundred people in Azerbaijan, there are about six with disabilities. One of the main problems many of them encounter in their daily lives difficulty finding clothes that are stylish, but also comfortable, and that they can put on themselves.
When Kamala Sultan was six years old, she was injured in a car accident that left her in a wheelchair. Now 32, she says that until she entered Baku Slavic University, she practically never left home for many years. Kamala still has trouble getting around in her wheelchair because most streets and buildings in Azerbaijan are not designed to accommodate people with disabilities. Extra problems were caused for her by the limited choice she had of comfortable clothes.
“It was not only hard for me to get around in a wheelchair, but it was also difficult to find appropriate clothes,” Kamala recalls. “I need something that won’t hinder my movement when I’m in the wheelchair, and that won’t get caught in the wheels. Plus it has to be the kind of clothes that I can put on myself in a seated position. It was really hard to find something like that.”
Khayala Huseynova, a 25-year-old teacher, has a congenital condition affecting her arms and legs. Like Kamala, she gets around in a wheelchair, and it’s equally important for her when choosing clothes that she can sit and move comfortably in them. But for Khayala, the situation is more complicated. Because her arms are weak, she has to carefully choose clothes that are easy to put on. Since most brands only produce clothing for people without any physical disabilities, finding clothes was a serious problem for her for many years.
Two years ago, however, she discovered a new social business that produces adaptive clothing, and it has significantly simplified her life. The designers at this project, called Kekalove Adaptive Fashion, have already made several special outfits for Khayala, taking into account her needs:
“My hands are weak, so I can’t use normal buttons or snaps and I used to rely on help from other people. But I can put on adaptive clothing really easily. I’ve often wondered, couldn’t there be different clothes for people like me, and couldn’t they be sold in boutiques? But people told me it wasn’t possible. After this project was launched, I realized that you could buy and wear this kind of clothing.”
The first adaptive clothing brand in Azerbaijan, Kekalove Adaptive Fashion, is a social business project which creates comfortable and stylish clothes for people with various kinds of disabilities, taking into account their special needs. The 20-year-old founder of the company, Mahammad Kekalov, says that he knew that there was a need for adaptive clothing in Azerbaijan based on his own family experience.
“My grandmother had a disability and eventually lost her sight, so I’ve known a lot about this since I was a child. We lived with my grandmother and helped her, so I already knew back then what kind of problems people with disabilities encountered. Clothes were one of those problems.”
According to Mahammad, the project’s primary goal is to make adaptive clothing the norm in Azerbaijan, and to get other brands and designers to produce adaptive clothing for the long term.
“By creating clothes which simplify the lives of people with disabilities, we’re making it possible for them to lead active lifestyles, and in that way we can contribute to their integration in society,” he added.
The project was launched in 2019 with a demonstration of their first adaptive clothes. Later, project participants created a collection of 24 adaptive designs for people with various special physical needs. While working on each design, the designers interacted with these very people, listening to their advice and their wishes. According to creative director Ruhlan Jalilov, they consult about everything, even the smallest details — from what they think makes clothing comfortable to the choice of fabrics.
“For example, some people want to hide their disabilities, while others want it to be easily noticeable. So when we’re using buttons, for example, we either hide them or, on the contrary, put them on display. The buttons are made from such beautiful materials that we don’t want to hide them, quite the opposite, we want to use them to stress that this is adaptive clothing.”
Ruhlan explained that they try to make sure that adaptive clothing is no different than normal clothing and is in line with modern fashion. The production of adaptive clothing uses more snaps, and adaptive clothes are looser so that people with disabilities can put them on and take them off without the help of other people.
“A person in a wheelchair usually gets dressed while lying down,” said Orkhan Adigozal. “The design of these clothes allows us to get dressed and undressed faster and more easily.”
Kamala Sultan said that after meeting the project designers, they solved her problem with long dresses. In addition, she really likes the styles and color patterns of the dresses and enjoys wearing them:
“I love bright colors, and this dress surrounds me with a positive aura,” said Kamala, showing off her dress. “It’s really me. My friends, my acquaintances, and my family say that they look really good on me and that they make me prettier. But I would say that I make them prettier.”
Gunay Mammadov is 43 years old. Seven years ago she lost her sight completely. She studied law, and she has a lot of other interests, like acting and cooking, but the loss of her sight keeps her from being as active as she used to be. According to her, after she found out about Kekalove Adaptive Fashion, her situation improved somewhat. Gunay spoke about the special features of the light blue dress she was wearing:
“I really love to wear beautiful clothes. For this dress, the designers used my favorite colors. And the material is really good. These clothes are really comfortable for disabled people. Especially the buttons… people think they’re just buttons, how could they be comfortable for anyone? But they really are.”
Instead of buttons they usually use snaps, which are easier to use, but which look like buttons.
Gunay believes that the creation of these individualized designs is a way of showing people with disabilities care and attention:
“With this project they’re sort of taking care of us and spoiling us. Clothing is also supposed to be beautiful. And you have to know how to make it beautiful.”
Project participants also put on adaptive clothing fashion shows, and the people with disabilities who helped create the clothes can take part as models. Gunay’s light blue dress was a favorite in this year’s summer collection:
“Although as an actress I’m already used to the stage, it was still really nice to be on the catwalk for the first time at this age. The energy of the public, the applause… you know, we actually miss those feelings, during the pandemic we were trapped inside for so long, and then suddenly — the stage, new impressions, new acquaintances… It was really great.”
Kamala Sultan said that she always wanted to see what it was like to be a model, but participating in this show was important to her for another reason as well:
“A lot of people think that fashion is only for people without any physical disabilities. But now, after so many years, the world of fashion that we dreamed about is finally accessible to us. We were able to show off our beauty as models, and we can order and wear the clothes that we want.”
Kekalove Adaptive Fashion has already begun work on the fall collection for their next show. In the future, they plan to launch a line of adaptive footwear, as well as various accessories for people who use wheelchairs.
According to Mahammad Kekalov, creating adaptive clothing is a way to draw attention to the problems faced by people with disabilities. Through social media, the company is trying to inform the public about them.
“To do that, we’ve chosen innovative methods such as storytelling to make it interesting for the public,” said Mahammad. “Our approach is distinctive because the content we share is created by people with disabilities themselves. And since they create it from their perspective, it’s really high quality. It also ensures their participation in our projects, and they bring their knowledge and abilities to the process.”
With the support of the Russian Language News Exchange