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.”