There are many niches in the fashion industry, from high fashion to costume wear, to performance-wear garments for people in the coal or oil industries. But another very important market is for specially designed garments for people with disabilities who often have difficulty finding clothing that fits properly.
Based in Mentor, Ohio, Downs Designs is a local company that is the first and only company of its kind. Downs Designs was founded to provide comfortable clothing to fit the unique body shape of a person with Down Syndrome. Those with Down Syndrome typically have shorter legs and have less muscle tone which leads to a rounder belly. Additionally, people with Down Syndrome also lack fine motor skills, which make it difficult to wear regular jeans with zippers and buttons.
For founder, Karen Bowersox, starting this unique business was a labor of love: the inspiration behind Downs Designs is her granddaughter Maggie who was born with Down Syndrome. Karen knew first-hand of the struggle to find clothing for her granddaughter that fit properly. Karen recalls, “In regular clothes, Maggie’s sleeves would fall into her cereal bowl, so I thought I would look online for a better solution.” After Karen found there was no such company online to provide this service, her daughter challenged her to make clothing for people with Down Syndrome.
The process began as Karen visited Virginia Marti College of Art and Design to consult with design students and professors on how to create these unique clothes. In January of 2010, Karen hired a young designer, Jillian Jankovsky, who helped her to create the muslins and sample patterns for specially designed jeans. The pattern making process involved creating the pattern foundation with the measurements of six adult models with Down Syndrome and then transferring the paper patterns to muslin. This process took 6-7 months and it involved weekly fittings on the models. At the end of this time, a total of 85 muslin samples were made to get the fit perfected for each of the six models. Once the final sample pieces were created, Karen then sourced a factory to manufacture the jeans which also required soft elastic for the waistbands and spandex–these stretchy materials eliminate the need for zippers and buttons. To ensure the proper fit, Downs Designs jeans are also unique in that they are designed to taper appropriately at the knee.
Today, Downs Designs features 18 different styles of jeans all of which don’t follow the typical sizing of standard clothing. Rather, sizing is based off of the wearer’s hip measurement. In order to incorporate different body shapes and proportions, Downs Designs uses what Karen has named “Down Sizing.” This means that jeans start out with large, adjustable waist sizes and are altered to the wearer’s waist measurement. Downs Designs also offers a very unique try on service, as stated on Karen’s website, “When you place your first order we will call you and even send out two pairs similar in size to ensure that you get the perfect fit. We will even custom hem the inseam of every pair of jeans just for you!” Another feature of these jeans is versatility, the jeans are designed to be simple staple pieces, so they can be worn for many years without going out of style. What I love is that each style is named for the model, the continuing inspiration for this company.
Karen teaches an important message for young designers, as she explains that not all fashion has to be couture as there is a need to design for all sizes and body shapes. “Designers should be creative and follow their passion. It’s not always about money, it’s about purpose.” With this in mind, it would be nice to see more designers take the initiative to create fashionable adaptive wear. “All people have a right to dignity, everyone is judged on their first appearance,” Karen asserts.
Karen’s mission to make a difference for people with disabilities continues with her next business venture, “NBZ Jeans,” No button, no zipper spandex jeans for men with disabilities such as arthritis or neuropathy which result in limited use of one’s hands. The jeans come in standard men’s sizes and will be mailed out to customers through Amazon. It is both Karen’s compassion for others and her resourcefulness that have lead to her success. Currently, Karen is setting up a “Pay it forward” program, donations can be sent in to pay for a pair of jeans for a person in need in the community.
Want to learn more about Downs Designs? Click on the link below: