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Katie Ellis holding clothing

Katie Ellis: designer of The Able Label adaptive clothing range

The Able Label is a new clothing retailer specialising in stylish and discreet adaptive clothing that not only looks good but is designed to make dressing easier for people with physical and cognitive disabilities.

Our writer, Emma Purcell, got the chance to interview The Able Label founder – Katie Ellis – about her career in the fashion industry and how her Grandmother’s Parkinson’s disease diagnosis inspired her to design stylish and functional adaptive clothing.

Head to the Disability Horizons Shop to browse The Able Label collection, which features quality fabrics, discreet adaptive designs, innovative fastenings and much more.

Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

I live in Kent with my husband – whom I have been together with since school – and our two children who are two and a half years and four months old, so quite a juggle!

I have always loved fashion and studied Design Management for Fashion Retailing at Manchester University. After graduating, I went on to work as a fashion buyer. I was fortunate enough to work across womenswear and menswear and teamed up closely with designers and factories to bring in clothes that our customers would love.

I’d often visit the factories alongside our designers to do this, sourcing the best fabrics, ensuring the clothes fitted perfectly and that everything was to the highest quality. Attention to detail was vital.

Most of all, I loved bringing in new collections that I knew our customers would adore. I got a buzz from seeing our customers feel fantastic when wearing the clothes I’d helped to work so hard on each season.

When working as a buyer, I was unaware there was such a large group that was unable to get that buzz from wearing clothes that made them look and feel great, let alone dress into them independently.

This was until my Grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I saw first-hand how she struggled not only with dressing independently, but also maintaining her sense of style and identity through clothes. She loved fashion and didn’t want to sacrifice this and desperately wanted her independence back.

The experience I gained as a buyer and spending time with my grandmother enabled and inspired me to found The Able Label, utilising my contacts within the industry and wanting to make a positive difference.

What kind of difficulties did your grandmother have when dressing that later inspired you to create adaptive clothing?

Katie Ellis' gradmother

I saw first-hand the difficulties my grandmother faced when dressing, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She especially struggled with manipulating fiddly fastenings like buttons, getting items over her head and bending down to pull trousers up. She also faced cognitive difficulties and would often dress items back to front.

Later on, she needed more help with assisted dressing. We searched together for some solutions but were both shocked by the lack of options available.

She loved the experience of shopping for clothes, that feeling of excitement when you try something new that fits perfectly and most importantly, being able to dress herself. The Parkinson’s slowly began to take this away from her and she hated the fact my grandfather increasingly had to help her with dressing.

She told me she felt as though she’d lost her dignity and independence so certainly wasn’t going to sacrifice her style too. That’s when I decided to do something about it – designing, developing and testing a range of great-looking, adaptive clothes that so many people like my grandmother would love to wear, yet also find easy to put on.

The Able Label was created to overcome such physical, cognitive and emotional challenges that so many people face with dressing on a daily basis. We aim to bridge the gap between function and fashion and give back independence as well as grow self-confidence. This is something not currently done by the fashion industry and we want to change this.

How did you come up with and design the first items of The Able Label range?

Before launching a single item, we spent 18 months trialling and testing the range. We held a LOT of focus group sessions with healthcare professionals including occupational therapists in addition to those who would benefit from the clothing themselves.

We ensured that individuals with a range of disabilities could get their opinions across to help create a range of truly helpful products. We gave out samples to be tried on and each time we got feedback, we went away and refined the designs.

This was until we were happy with our initial collection of clothes that launched about six years ago. We have come a long way since then but to this day, we continue to gain vital feedback from panels to ensure we are keeping to our desirable yet dressable philosophy throughout our designs.

How do you think your adaptive clothing range differs from other clothing brands?

The most important thing for us when developing our clothes is not only that they look great, but that they are also fit for purpose and functional, feeling great when worn. We want to create clothes that people would love to wear regardless of their ability or disability – not only increasing independence but also growing self-confidence, which can only be achieved if there is the perfect balance of fashion, comfort and ease.

We are a lifestyle brand that, like my grandmother and our inspirational customers, maintain a positive attitude. We believe that the right clothes can change your mood – if you’re comfortable and confident in what you wear, this will come across.

This feeling is something that we endeavour to create with every item we bring in so independence, attention to detail and quality is always at the heart of everything we do. We appreciate that it’s often the little things in life that make the biggest difference. Our versatile clothes become wardrobe favourites that can be worn for years to come.

High street brands tend to solely focus on the way clothes look, failing to factor in how easy they are to dress. This is something we want to change in the fashion industry, believing everyone has the right to fashion and function.

What is your best-selling product at the moment?

One of our best-selling products, that’s also one of my favourites, is our Tabatha Tee. They are so versatile and can be worn dressed down with jeans or up with a statement necklace and tucked into a midi skirt. There are so many possibilities and they’re super comfy and practical too.

Tabatha Tee - red - The Able Label

Made from pure cotton, they are soft and breathable but also have added features like touch-close velcro at the front to avoid overhead dressing. Raglan sleeves give a greater surface area making it easier to get arms into armholes. Colour-coordinated internals also helps with this too making the armholes easier to see, plus with lime for the left and red for the right, they help anyone with cognitive difficulties to dress the right way round.

It’s basically an all-round hero piece – versatile enough to wear with almost anything and helpful enough to make dressing easier for a wide variety of needs.

On menswear – our short sleeved Harvey shirt in Med Blue is a best seller with velcro in place of buttons at the front and in an easy-care fabric.

Men’s Harvey short sleeve front velcro fastening adaptive shirt – Med Blue

Did you have any challenges along the way in starting your business?

There are always challenges but to minimise them, the 18 months was spent trialling and testing before a single product was launched. We held focus groups with various charities, carers, health care professionals and those who’d benefit directly from our clothing.

Very initial reactions were positive but we wanted to do even better. So, several rounds of samples later and after even more focus groups, we finally narrowed down a collection to launch with.

This enabled us to establish exactly what people wanted without making any mistakes. Through listening, we understood what was wanted and simply reacted to this.

Why do you have names on your clothes (i.e Tabatha, Harvey, Debbie etc) and are there reasons why you chose these specific names?

The names of many of our clothes in the range have come from individuals who have overcome challenges and stayed resilient throughout their lives, living with a disability.

A true inspiration to us all, they epitomised the essence of The Able Label, fighting for independence, always remaining positive and being comfortable and confident in their own skin.

In tribute to them, the very least we could do was name our clothes after them!

Katie Ellis

At present, how do you make, sell and distribute your products?

As a family-run business, all the day-to-day runnings and dispatch are carried out from home with staff coming in. I bring my two daughters, Eva and now little Emily, into the office with me so things can get pretty busy but are always fun! Everyone we employ and work with is like an extended member of the family. This includes our suppliers too.

We have a mix of factories based all over the world including Portugal, India and the UK, which manufacture our clothes that are designed in-house, here in Britain. We also work with a network of fantastic, highly talented seamstresses to offer an alterations service, carrying out any specific requirements customers might have.

Our clothes are sold mostly online through our website but we do partner with some carefully selected third parties like Disability Horizons who sell The Able Label clothes on our behalf.

Have you got any new products lined up for the future?

Yes, we are just about to launch the winter collection, which will include warmer season-appropriate clothes with more easier dressing layers including cosy knits and coats.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?

If you have a great idea, which solves a real problem and you can prove that your idea will successfully do this for those in need of it – go for it! Make sure that it is in something that you are truly passionate about though as it is really hard work running a business so you have to love what you do to stay committed to it.

I have always loved fashion and to make a positive difference at the same time, helping those in a similar situation to my grandmother is ultimately rewarding.

Hearing from our customers that our clothes have made a huge impact on their lives, makes all the highs, lows and continuous hard work worthwhile.

One customer was choosing not to go out as she feared that she wouldn’t be able to get her coat back on without asking for help. Since discovering The Able Label, she has started going back out again.

Our clothes have helped to change lives – giving back independence and growing confidence – seeing this is what I love most.

Check out The Able Label adaptive clothing range on the Disability Horizons Shop.

Interview by Emma Purcell 

More on Disability Horizons… 

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