Functional and fashionable: Adaptive apparel can be stylish

When Jordan Silver’s aunt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, she was shocked that people with disabilities had so few clothing choices. What was available tended to be dowdy and aimed at an older crowd.

“There wasn’t much out there that someone like my aunt wanted to wear,” Silver recalls. “It was functional but it wasn’t very stylish.”

So Silver, then in her mid-20s, began to adapt clothes to make it easier for her Aunt Janet to get in and out of shirts and pants and skirts. Eventually, all that cutting and sewing paid off when she launched an online business, Ag Apparel, that has been featured in O, the Oprah magazine and various other media outlets. Though her Aunt Janet didn’t live long enough to witness Silver’s success — she died in 2007 — that initial experience has kept Silver true to the cause.

“People should be able to create their own style no matter what, whether you have a disability or not,” says Silver, who teaches “Intro to Fashion Design Business” at Miami-Dade College’s continuing education program and serves as an entrepreneurial coordinator for a student support service.

Ag Apparel, named for the element silver in the periodic table, debuted in the spring of 2008 at the Abilities Expo in New Jersey. It earned immediate raves. One longtime industry watcher and blogger called it innovative and cutting edge. She scored several write-ups in publications soon after.

Silver’s clothing line includes everything from capes and scarves to dresses and maternity wear, enough mix and match possibilities to fill an entire closet. The outfits feature elastic waists, dual zippers and large button holes and come in several fabric styles and colors.

There’s one thing you’ll never see on a Silver-designed item, however: Velcro. That’s a no-no her aunt hated. “Elastic is your best friend,” she says, with conviction.

Silver, now 32, shares her real world experience with her students.

“You can have a fancy business plan, but then what?” she asks rhetorically. “You still have to know your market. You have to make something people want.”

To that end, she makes sure people with different disabilities try on her designs and she seeks approval of new items from her mother, whose arthritis makes dressing and undressing a challenge. She calls her style “classic with a twist.” In a sentimental touch, she names the designs for members of her family and donates 5 percent of the profits from the sale of Janet tops to the Spastic Paraplegia Foundation.

The Janet tops, named for her aunt, have a smock-like design with the front and back attached at the shoulder seam and ties on the back that you wrap around to the front. The top can go over the head without a woman having to raise her arms. There are Angela tiered skirts as well as Morgan and Wendy skirts. She also offers custom-made clothing for special occasions or hard-to-fit bodies.

It certainly helps that Silver, with a gimlet eye for fashion, practices what she preaches. She wears the clothing she sells and is an attractive ambassador for the concept of universal design. During an interview, she enthusiastically demonstrates the different ways to use her chocolate-brown Lucy 3+ Way Dress —as a skirt and as a strapless or halter dress.

An early fan who has followed Silver’s business is Stephanie Thomas, who once ran a disability fashion consulting firm but now writes a blog, lefthandstyle, on the industry and serves as a consultant.

“She’s on the cutting edge of something that is really necessary and needed,” the Los Angeles-based Thomas says. “I think that in the next five to 10 years we’re going to see the industry recognizing that people with disabilities are also fashion consumers.”

There are more than 54 million people with disabilities, who control an aggregate income of 1 trillion dollars, Thomas says , yet no single bricks and mortar store in the United States caters to them. Other countries do have such shops, but as Thomas puts it, “We’re just not there yet.”

What’s more, department stores usually don’t carry adaptive apparel and few have ever used models in wheelchairs. “We have more clothes for pets in stores than we have for seated body types,” Thomas says.

One of Ag Apparel’s earliest customers was Jodie Rodrigues, a 38-year-old New York mother who has a form of cerebral palsy. When she discovered the retailer at the Abilities Expo, she said she was thrilled. She found the outfits easy to wear, a necessity for the wheelchair-bound. She especially likes Ag’s jeans because they’re stylish, not just comfortable.

“If you have a disability, people stare at you,” Rodrigues says. “So if people are going to stare at me, I want them to be staring at me wearing something really cool.”

Cyndi Kovacs, a customer from Kendall, discovered Ag Apparel while doing an online search. In a wheelchair because of a spinal injury caused by a diving accident more than 20 years ago, Kovacs also struggles to find stylish work clothes. “Most of what’s out there makes you feel like you’re wearing your grandmother’s sweater,” she says. “But her clothes are universal. Pretty much they can be worn by anyone.”

Silver grew up in New Jersey, one of those girls who always fiddled with her outfits trying to figure out how she could transform a skirt into a blouse. At 6, she tried to get her Girl Scout brownie troop to change the uniforms to denim. “I just didn’t like the color,” she remembers.

After college, a series of jobs introduced her to the fashion industry, but she always knew she wanted to run her own business. She joined Ladies Who Launch, a New York City networking group, which gave her the foundation — and confidence — to start Ag Apparel, but it wasn’t until she saw her aunt struggling with her outfits that she recognized the need for fashionable adaptive apparel. Though she turned a profit last year, thanks to a large wholesale order from Japan, the early years were difficult. An e-mail from her aunt during a particularly trying time in her nascent business kept her on track. It read, in part, “Most of all, the clothes must look attractive and stylish.”

In 2011, Silver moved to Miami for her job and is planning to transfer her manufacturing, now based in the Northeast, to the area as well. Her customers are hoping to see her designs in stores soon.

“I’d love to see her in specialty stores and boutiques,” says Rodrigues. “It’d be really nice to have that option when you need clothes quicker.”

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