I love fashion. I actually go to bed every night thinking about what I'm going to wear the next day. Clothing transforms me, defines me, gives me confidence. You may not feel the same way about fashion, but I bet you have a favorite T-shirt or a pair of jeans that transforms you — makes you feel good, makes you feel confident, makes you feel like you.
When I was younger, I wanted to be Betsey Johnson. I thought we were kindred, crazy-hair spirits together. I did go to fashion design, I worked in the industry for years and loved it.
I married, I had three kids. But life can be heartbreakingly ironic. My middle child, Oliver, was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, or MD. MD affects his muscle strength, his pulmonary system, distorts his body and makes everyday life more challenging than most. From the time he could walk, which wasn't until about two and a half, he had to wear leg braces for stability. Because he wasn't growing appropriately, he had to wear a feeding tube that was placed on his face. He endured stares, and so did I.
But my husband Greg and I told him that no matter what, he was just like everybody else. But everyday tasks for Oliver that we all take for granted were incredibly challenging. That simple act of dressing yourself — the very thing that I adore — was a nightmare for him. His form of MD does not affect his mind. His brain is an A-plus, which means he's acutely aware of his shortcomings. This became very evident when he started school, and that daily act of dressing yourself was a constant reminder of what he could and could not do. So our solution was for Oliver to wear sweatpants every day: to school, to parties, on vacations — his uniform. For special occasions, he would wear proper pants. But many times, because he couldn't manage the button and zipper, I would have to take him to the men's room, which was incredibly embarrassing for him and the other men that were in there. But them — I said, "Oh, please. There's nothing I haven't seen before."
For years we muddled through. But when Oliver was in third grade, I found out he was more like me than I ever imagined. Oliver, too, cared about fashion. He came home from school one day and said very definitively that he was going to wear jeans to school like everybody else gets to wear. Well, I certainly couldn't go to class with him and take him to the boys' room, but there was no way I was telling my eight-year-old that he couldn't wear what he wanted to wear.
So that night, I MacGyvered the hell out of his jeans. I remembered when I was pregnant and unwilling to stop wearing my own favorite pants, even though I was busting out of them, that rubber-band trick. You moms remember what I'm talking about? The rubber band through the buttonhole, around the button and back? Instant stretch. So I removed the zipper so he could pull it up and down on his own. I cut up the side seam of the bottom of his pants to accommodate for his leg braces, applied Velcro — hold your ears, everybody: peel and stick, mind you — so that it would close around it. When I showed Oliver my arts and crafts project, he absolutely beamed. He went into school with his head held so high. Those jeans transformed him. He was able to get dressed on his own, he was able to go to the bathroom on his own; those jeans gave him confidence.
I didn't realize it at the time, but this was my first foray into the world of adaptive clothing. Adaptive clothing is defined as clothing designed for people with disabilities, the elderly and anyone who struggles with dressing themselves. Adaptive clothing did exist, but it was missing that mainstream fashion component. It was very medicinal and very functional but not stylish. And that's a huge problem, because what you wear matters. Clothing can affect your mood, your health and your self-esteem.
Now, being a fashion lover, I've known this forever, but scientists actually have a name for it. It's called "Enclothed Cognition," the co-occurrence of two factors: the symbolic meaning of clothing and the physical experience of wearing the clothing, both of which have a direct correlation to how you feel about yourself. There's actually a professor in the UK by the name of Karen J. Pine. She wrote a book called "Mind What You Wear: The Psychology of Fashion." She states in her book that when you put clothes on, you adapt the characteristics of what you're wearing, whether you realize it or not. That's why you feel like a rock star when you put on those perfect-fitting jeans. That's why you feel invincible when you put on that power suit, and that's why you feel beautiful in that little black dress. But that's exactly why Oliver felt so isolated when he couldn't wear what he wanted to wear. He even said to me one time, "Mom, wearing sweatpants every day makes me feel like I'm dressing disabled."
There are one billion people on our planet that experience some type of disability. One billion. If 10 percent of that billion experience clothing challenges, that's an enormous amount of people that may not be as confident, as successful or even as happy as they could be. The morning after Oliver left for school wearing those jeans, I realized that I could do something about that. And so I did.
In 2013, I founded an organization called Runway of Dreams. The mission was to educate the fashion industry that modifications could be made to mainstream clothing for this community that has never been served. And it began with an entire year of research. I went to schools, I went to facilities, I went to hospitals. I literally chased down people on the street who were in wheelchairs or if they had walkers or even if they had a slight limp.
I know I must have looked insane, but I knew that if I was really going to make a difference, I had to truly understand the clothing challenges of as many different people as I possibly could.
I met a young man who was 18 who has cerebral palsy. He was going to Harvard University. He said to me, "Can you imagine? I got myself into Harvard, but my dream is to be able to wear jeans on campus, like the other freshmen will wear." I met a little girl named Gianna, who was missing her left forearm and her hand. Her mother told me she could not bear to see her daughter's difference magnified by a dangling sleeve, so she had every single long-sleeve shirt professionally tailored. Can you imagine the time and money she spent? I also had the great privilege of spending time with Eric LeGrand, former Rutgers football player who was paralyzed during a tackle in 2010. I had, at this point, seen some unfathomable things, but this, by far, was the most heart-stopping.
You see, Eric is a really big guy, and it took two aides and a lifting machine to get him dressed. I sat and watched this process for over two hours. When I expressed my shock to Eric, he looked at me and said, "Mindy, this is every single day. What can I say? I like to look sharp."
I knew that if I was going to make a change in the industry, I had to use my background and really figure out how to make these clothes modified. So I took the information I gathered over that past year, and I figured out that there were actually three categories that were affected across the board. The first were closures. Buttons, snaps, zippers, hook-and-eyes were a challenge for almost everybody. So I replaced them with a more manageable technology: magnets. Magnets made our Harvard freshman able to wear jeans on campus, because he could dress himself.
Second: adjustability. Pant lengths, sleeve lengths, waistbands were a challenge for so many different-shaped bodies. So I added elastic, an internal hemming system. This way, Gianna could wear a shirt right off the rack and just adjust the one sleeve.
Last: alternate ways to get the clothing on and off the body, outside the traditional way of over your head. So I designed a way to go in arms first. This, for somebody like Eric, could actually take five steps off his dressing process and give him back the gift of time.
So I went out, I bought clothing right off the rack, I sat at my kitchen table, ripped them apart, did prototype after prototype, until I felt I had great modifications. And then I was ready for the big leagues: the fashion industry. Rather than designing my own collection, I knew if I was really going to make a difference, I had to go mainstream. I believed that I just needed to educate the industry of the enormity of this population and the fact that these were consumers that simply weren't being considered.
And I am thrilled to say that the industry heard me. Runway of Dreams collaborated with the most amazing, forward-thinking brand on our planet —
who took my vision to market and made fashion history by launching the first mainstream adaptive collection. And the rest is yet to come.
Fashion holds the key to a vital lifeline. Clothing can be transformative. Clothing equals confidence. So tomorrow, when you are starting your day and you're thinking about what you're going to wear, I hope you appreciate the process and think about how what you chose makes you feel.
Today, Oliver is 13. He wears his adaptive khakis, his magnetic button-front shirt — feels like the coolest kid around. My boy has total swagger.
As I mentioned, Oliver's disease is degenerative, which means his muscles are going to break down over time. This, by far, is the most devastating part for me. I have to sit on the sidelines and watch my boy deteriorate. And there's nothing I can do about it. So I am looking up from the things that I cannot control to the things that I can, because I have no option.
And so, I am looking up. And I'm asking the fashion industry to look up. And now, I'm asking all of you to look up, too.