At first glance, we seem bombarded with clothing options. Never before in history have there been so many stores and styles to chose from. Don’t like the ‘fast fashion’ of the malls? There are vintage shops a-plenty. Having trouble finding a specific item you see in your mind? Go online and you’ll probably uncover something similar.
As clothing has become more and more central to our identities, styles have multiplied exponentially, like molecules in a petri dish.
But not everyone is represented in the innumerable items on the rack. As Jeanne Beker recently wrote about a friend of hers who uses a wheelchair, many people still get left out of the fashion industry despite declarations of democracy.
Karen Bowersox, an entrepreneur from Mentor, Ohio, noticed that it didn’t matter how many times her granddaughter Maggie rolled up her jeans. They never fit properly, and she was left constantly tripping over them.
Maggie has Down syndrome, the condition caused by the presence of an extra 21st chromosome. People with Down syndrome often share physical characteristics such as thicker necks, short limbs, slanting shoulders and protruding stomachs, which makes finding clothes exceedingly difficult. Traditionally, people with Down syndrome and their parents would adjust regular clothes. Getting every piece of clothing custom-made or tailored is something only a Parisian couture-buyer could afford.
Bowersox discovered no one was producing clothing specifically for people with Down syndrome. Despite having no background in fashion, she founded Downs Designs. She initially thought that she could just alter pre-existing clothes, but realized that there were enough unique issues to warrant starting from scratch. Designer Jillian Jankovsky came on board and the women began work on an entirely new system of sizing, which they called ‘Down Sizing.’
“Because of the enormous task of creating a size that had never existed before,” Bowersox says, “We started with adult-size jeans and a simple long-sleeve t-shirt.” To accommodate larger stomachs (caused by low muscle tone), Downs Designs offers jeans which are lower in the front. As people with Down Syndrome often have trouble with buttons and zippers, the pants feature elastic waistbands.
Although she had the help of eight testers with Down syndrome, Bowersox wanted to be sure her clothing would fit a good cross-section of people. It would have been tragic if, after all the work, her clothes still didn’t fit right. She packed up her samples and set out for The National Down Syndrome Congress Conference in Orlando, Florida. With nothing for sale yet, she enlisted attendees to try on the clothes. Based on their feedback, she made modifications.
“There are six million people in the world with Down syndrome and they come in all shapes and sizes. But over these last two years I feel that we have captured their uniqueness and will be able to accommodate most in some capacity.”
Finding a company to make the clothes was another trial. American manufacturers thought it was too risky an endeavor. The so-called democratization of fashion only works when money’s involved. Eventually Bowersox found a jeans factory in China willing to make the pants, which led her to another one for shirts. She and Jankovsky have flown there to see the factories themselves and pick out fabrics.
Currently offering staples like jeans and shirts, Bowersox wants to move Downs Designs into different areas, including more items for children and teens. Whether there is a large enough market for Downs Designs in the long run is impossible to know yet, but so far the response has been encouraging.
“I am in awe over the support I have received,” Bowersox says. “Mothers from all over the world have shared their gratitude… By the time my 6-year-old granddaughter cares what she wears, I hope she can shop at ‘grandma’s store’ for all her needs. I hope she will grow up with one less challenge in her life.”
There are all sorts of clothes out there to help you become a Goth or Punk, a Business Woman or a Vintage Queen. But we also need a diversity of clothing to help give everybody the chance to decide how they want to express themselves. Clothing can help create a myriad of identities, but sometimes the most important one for a person whose shirt has never fit right is Respected Human Being.
text by Max Mosher
images courtesy of Karen Bowersox