Podcast Episode 22.There’s a solution out there for every challenge, including finding clothing designed to make getting dressed easier. This week we talk to Katie Ellis, from The Able Label, a UK based clothing manufacturer.
The company was originally started to help Katie’s grandmother, who had Parkinson’s, find clothes that were both fashionable and functional. The company has now grown to providing clothing that has been adapted (based on comprehensive research with customers and professionals) for the variety of customer lifestyles.
Katie explains some of the innovations the company has developed, including color coordinating to give visual clues when dressing and the use of fabrics and fastenings to make getting dressed independently doable for most people.
While most of us never think about getting dressed, some people struggle with this task, and Able Label provides clothes that given them greater opportunities to be independent without having to sacrifice fashion for functionality.
[3.45] – The history of The Able Label
[6.00] – The challenges the business faced
[8.00] – Marrying fashion with practicalities
[8.30] – Designing for lifestyle not age
[9.15] – Listening to the customer
[9.40] – Lime is for left and red is for right
[10.15] – Not just any old velcro
There are solutions out there
DEBRA: Welcome to this week’s episode of the Journey Skills podcast. A bit of a change of pace this week. I’m back to the UK for me and the podcast. This week I’m talking Katie Ellis who runs a company called The Able Label. This is a company that sells clothing designed to make getting dressed easier, so I’m sure you can see where she’s going with that name. Although this company isn’t designed specifically for young people with additional needs, after talking to her, I can see that there’s plenty of crossover and the idea that she has developed could help anyone who has challenges when it comes to getting dressed.
Just so we’re clear, this is not a sponsored slot, I happen on the Able Label through a friend and reached out to Katie because I thought what she was doing might be relevant. I know there are other companies out there offering clothing that helps people with sensory issues but some of the ideas Katie shares would have really helped my daughter. And I confess as well I have purchased the product without going into too much detail, over-sharing and generally being an embarrassing mother, front fastening is the way to go.
Over the years, it’s been hard watching my daughter struggle with getting dressed. Of course, when she was younger, it didn’t matter as much because it’s kind of expected you’ll be putting jumpers over heads, helping with zips, straightening, pretty much everything, tying shoelaces, etc. and not forgetting looking for those lost coats, lost socks, pretty much anything. But as she gotten older, it’s got really difficult finding that balance between helping here and giving her the independence. And it’s also about having patience particularly is the time to expands school mornings but I want her to build those independent skills because it’s important for her future. And I know that if I’ve found the company like the Able Label, would have been really helpful.
We started off the podcast with the story behind the company and as is often the case, this company provides products or services that help others. It comes from what I call ‘scratching your own itch’. Certainly, that’s where Journey Skills came from for us. So, Katie’s inspiration was her grandmother. So, we hear her story and how important the project has been for her and her family. We also hear about some of the technical aspects of developing clothing that makes life easier for people and I have to say before this, I thought, Velcro is Velcro but after hearing Katie, I learned that’s just not the case. The Able Label has some really innovative ways of making getting dressed to simple processes as well and Katie also identifies the issues around finding clothes to both functional and fashionable.
DEBRA: This week we’re talking to Katie Ellis. She runs a company called the Able Label. So welcome, Katie.
KATIE: Thank you very much.
DEBRA: Tell us a little bit about your company, how it started, the story behind it?
KATIE: Yes, so Able Label, we are relatively new company. We’ve been trading for about a year and a half but prior to that, it was a year and a half of trying and testing the clothes but we before we go into that, I really want to take you to the background stories to really why we setup the company and what’s the heart of what we do. So, I was previously a buyer for a company called White Stuff which do women’s clothing and men’s clothing. The very nice quality, comfortable, colorful clothes and never did I really appreciate that there will be people out there who actually couldn’t enjoy those clothes just because they wouldn’t be able to dress into not suit them.
It was basically when my grandmother developed Parkinson’s that I actually began to appreciate that need. There is a group out there that want to look good, that want to be independent, maintain their dignity and also maintain their style and really their personality, their identity through their clothing. And I looked with my grandmother on several websites on the internet to try and find something that solves this problem, that she could maintain her sense of style. She loves clothing, she loves shopping, but at the same time also helped her maintain her independence through dressing.
And I was absolutely pwned by the lack of options out there. There was nothing that combine the both. We found options that looked great what she loved but then it won’t be easy to get into. And on the flip side, we found a company that made them easy to dress into but they just looked hideous. You can imagine what they look like. Really quite dull, frumpy, and the fabrics were very synthetic and just not nice, not something that she really wanted to wear. And that’s really where it all began.
We quickly did some research and found that she wasn’t alone, regardless of your age, whatever disability, any sort of disability, dressing can become quite difficult and we really sort to address those needs and that’s where we did the year and a half trialed and testing all sorts of different garments so for example, we’d have one t-shirt design on star made up on five different versions. We trialed Velcro fastening, we trialed magnetic fastening, hook and eye fastening, all sorts and we took it to several focused groups who consisted of professionals like occupational therapists, health care professionals and also people who would benefit from the clothing.
Really to sort of identify what the key challenges we’re addressing and which of our items address those needs and made it easier for them to get items or not and at the same time, whether the style of what we were doing was so differ, whether it was something that they actually desired and wanted to wear at the same time.
DEBRA: So, when she found the clothing line and decided what you’re going to do, what are the challenges did you have starting out?
KATIE: I was quite fortunate in that working for White Stuff I did have contacts in manufacturing and I knew some factories but even still, you know, that the quantities which for us so forth buying into a far, far high than what we like to really get up there and test around so you basically making smaller quantities brings a whole worth of challenges. You put the back of the production line, as they’ve got a big order going through 10,000 units, they’re going to prioritize that, they’re not going to prioritize the front, so we had to wait for a long time for samples and everything else. And actually, we got to the point where just before we’re about to go live with the ranged, we had 2 months everything made out, we had all our marketing in place and everything else and we decided to switch factories. We had gone through, you know, I’m become quite to fell sick of the hurdles and that one in particular is one of the biggest ones that we had to address and there were several things that really sort of set us apart as to why we’re doing this clothing and why they’re more easy to dress in to. So yes, you got the fastening, she got the fabric and with all of our jersey stuff we actually also color code in their internals so we say lime is for left and red is for right and in the armholes, we’ve got binding. So basically, if you are looking back to try and put your arms in the armhole, it’s a visual target for you to aim for and it also helps people to dress the right way round. From our focus groups and there were several OTs who actually flags the hats off to having a struggle, having coping of difficulties, dressing the wrong way round was a big, big issue so with the OTs, we dressed this going to choose in these color-coordinating scheme to help overcome these difficulties.
DEBRA: Okay, so not only sort of helping in terms of dressing but also helping in terms of processing what way to do it.
KATIE: Yes, so you got the physical side of the dressing and you got also the cognitive side of the dressing as well.
DEBRA: How difficult is it to marry the practicalities that you need to address with the fashion? What you said before is very true if you look for clothing that’s practical and I’ve done it for my daughter, it doesn’t tend to be terribly fashionable. So how do you marry those?
KATIE: I tend to start with the design, so I’ve got a name and start a vision that I like for an item of clothing and then from that, we’ll work very closely with the factory and also we put in garment technologist who really help us break down the garment, basically make it easier to get into right down to what position do we put the fastening in to make sure it doesn’t gay. It’s difficult to marry the two off; some designs which we say you just can’t achieve that, it’s just not possible to make it easy to dress into.
DEBRA: Do you look at the fashion that’s happening for the audience that you’d like to cater for? Because like you said you tend to cater for older people for the moment but along the clothes that you have could be used for young adults.
KATIE: All the time, we go to all the big trade shows, we got all the key trends, we’ve got covered all the key colors for the season, next season we’ve covered off the key colors which are out there as well. That’s just as important to us and I think what’s really important to know is that we don’t actually design to age, we design to a lifestyle. It’s not age-specific. It might be that there are more older people out there who can benefit from the clothing but it’s not necessarily just designed to an older person.
DEBRA: So, what do you mean by lifestyle?
KATIE: More to do with what you enjoy. We, for example, we don’t go for just dull, boring colors. It’s just an example. We’re very colorful, we’re quite a positive brand and you’ll see from the ranged that we do, we don’t shy away from color and we’re slightly different in that respect it is to a lifestyle. I don’t think that the people who perhaps design the clothes really speak to those who are going to wearing it and I don’t know necessary where they’ve had any first experience themselves with someone who needs this clothing or themselves need the clothing. I think that’s where I think the wrong is ‘not listening’ perhaps. That’s where we’ve really wanted to sort of stand out as being different from those who are doing this type of clothing. We consider everything not just the functionality. And this is why we’re trying to make it more accessible. We also eventually do want to get into men’s wear because we think, there is just the same need for men’s wear as there is women’s wear.
DEBRA: Because our audience is a bit younger, can we talk a little bit more about the ease to get into clothes?
KATIE: Within the garments, within the armholes, the t-shirts and tops for examples, we all color-coordinate. The left-hand side has wound within the armhole, you’ll have a lime color that surrounds the armhole. The red for right, on the right-hand side as wounds. So, it’s just a trigger, a visual trigger to help people to dress the right way round. We also have the labels in the back so they can distinguish the front and the back. And that really sort of helps with the color-coordinating with cognitive difficulties.
With the binding, you could feel your way in to the armhole. Code-binding which you put in the armhole and you can feel it’s raised so you could feel that it’s raised and fill for that armhole. We’ve had a lot of people say that actually overhead-dressing is very difficult and actually can be quite distressing for people if they can’t see what’s going on. Basically, with that, we designed all of our garments to have the ability to undo and do up at the front, so you don’t actually have to dress overhead, you do have the option to dress at the front and almost wrap around you.
With the fastenings which we use, we went to the process of trying all sorts of different fastenings and got feedback from all types of people including the health care professionals and we felt that the touch closing velcro was the best. Lots of the sportswear companies use is velcro. What’s so special about it is that it’s got what we call a low pale string so you can open and close, it’s much easier. It’s got a high tense of strength, so you can pull it in either direction as if you’re wearing it, it holds close. And once you put it fasten, it’s so strong, it’s very difficult to moving it to come undone. Because a lot of people say to us “Oh, what about washing it?”. Some wash it with the velcro not closed, the velcro will lost in some other garments. You just need to make sure it’s closed when it’s washed. In terms of laundering, we tried to make everything easy care. We would appreciate that it’s not just the dressing, again it’s the touching that lifestyle, if you struggle to dress, you’re also going to struggle to launder and look after the garments. So, we therefore try make that as easiest as possible as well. They are all easy wash.
DEBRA: Young people with additional needs often a lot of stuff, they have got the energy to struggle with clothes, so they kind of give up in a way, so in the sense, you’re helping them, for most of us just putting the button is just very simple.
KATIE: Yeah, it couldn’t be a big deal but for others it is.
DEBRA: If you’ve got problems with your motor skills, then that becomes a really big issue. Velcro and elastic are the answers to a lot of people. As we were discussing before we actually started the interview, that can often lead to something that’s less fashionable.
KATIE: Yeah, and what we doing is, we offering people an alternative option.
DEBRA: Lovely! Thank you very much for your time.
KATIE: Thank you.
DEBRA: Key takeaways? Well, really only that there are companies out there doing amazing things to make other people’s lives easier. From what started as an idea to help her grandmother who has clearly grown into a much larger mission for Katie. And I hope she does expand her line to not only men’s wear but also grows the company so it provides the solution for many more people.
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