Style and comfort in one: Adaptive clothing for people with disabilities

A Kekalove Adaptive Fashion Brand runway show. Screenshot from the video reportage by Meydan TV.

“Kekalove Adaptive Fashion,” was founded in 2019 and aims to design accessible clothes specifically for people with disabilities in Azerbaijan. Global Voices interviewed Kekalove founder, Mahammad Kekalov to learn more about the idea behind the brand and their future plans.

Global Voices [GV]: How long have you been thinking about launching the brand and what was the journey like to get here?

Mahammad Kekalov [MK]: I started thinking about a disability-fashion brand three years ago, when I was 17. I myself was quite skeptical at first, and there wasn’t much information online, when I was doing research. But lack of resources and information, became even more of an inspiration to me than a discouragement. I shared this idea with a few close friends, who encouraged me to start working on it. I like to think that it was their support three years ago, that got us where we are today. But the journey was not without challenges. It took a lot of work to convince partners, investors, and donors about the potential of this idea. It was very novel and new, especially in our geography.

People didn’t understand the challenges and the hardships people with disabilities face, and so they couldn’t imagine the solutions we were offering. But we didn’t give up. I had a very supportive team who believed in my vision despite my young age and lack of experience, and they continue to support me. I like to believe that it was our resilience and commitment to the adaptive design philosophy that our brand didn’t fail within its first year.

Adaptive fashion is clothing designed for differently-abled people who find traditional store-brand clothes inaccessible, uncomfortable, or both. There has been a shift in recent years, as more and more companies incorporate adaptive clothing designs into their fashion lines, including international brands like Nike and Tommy Hilfiger as well as local brands, such as Kekalove in Azerbaijan — the first adaptive fashion brand in Azerbaijan.

“What we brought here [to Azerbaijan] is distinctive and unprecedented,” said Kekalov. “I am amazed for the need of this idea in Azerbaijan and baffled that it's been left unfulfilled for so many years. After us, other activists started similar disability fashion initiatives which makes all of us at Kekalove Adaptive very proud of them and also of our own work. Just a few years back I was the only one to talk about this issue, and today we’re building a new ecosystem in Azerbaijan.”

Kekalov had his own reasons for building an adaptive fashion brand. “My grandmother had a visual disability for the last 20 years of her life. Growing up, I witnessed firsthand the hardships of being disabled in Azerbaijan. And my grandmother’s fashion problem was one that hit a chord for me. Later in life when I discovered that we could create clothing for people’s specific needs, I was quite moved. The first thing I thought of, was how useful it could be for my grandmother.”

One of the brand's core tenets is involving people with disabilities in the design process.

We follow a world-famous method called the “adaptive design method” which is used by entrepreneurs and businesses worldwide who design products for persons with disabilities.  We don’t take a single step without consulting our models with disabilities.

They are guiding the process with their insight and feedback. Our designs go through an extensive trial and error process, where we develop designs based on previous feedback we have received. It’s like a loop. Our models wear the products we created for them and tell us what works and what doesn’t. Then we continue to iterate until we achieve perfection. Our slogan is “Dress better. Look better. Feel better.” We don’t say it for nothing. We believe clothing can be a game-changer in a person's life. We work to enable persons with disabilities to be their best selves via trendy fashion.

GV: Do you plan to expand into other countries? 

We have two priorities right now — to build functioning products for our customers, and become a truly inclusive disability brand. Before franchising into other countries, we want to become the most influential disability brand in Azerbaijan. As a social business, our goal is to make life easier for as many persons with disabilities as possible in Azerbaijan first. I like to believe as we extend our work, we will also gain more expertise and legitimacy in the global disability rights ecosystem. Right now, we focus on Azerbaijan only. In the future, however, from a business perspective, we wish to expand into China and Australia. Of course, it’s in the distant future and we need to do proper research first. But going international for our brand will be based on the commercial benefits.

GV: What have been the challenges of setting up this project and getting it to work?

As I noted earlier, in the beginning, it was a challenge to explain this idea to other people. People were puzzled. I’m lucky I had my family who understood me and supported me. But for others, it was not as clear. Visuals came to our help. We started to show exactly what we changed in clothing and how that helped others. Our first product was on display at an exhibition for two months in Baku, and at the end of this exhibition, a person with a disability danced in our adaptive dress. She demonstrated how easy it was for her to wear our dress. We also had technical difficulties. We had to change our production and supply line many times due to lack of quality. Today we use only the best and highest quality fabrics and employ highly qualified tailors. It adds up to the price, but it’s important for us to deliver quality for our community.

GV: Did you anticipate the project would get so much interest?

I was very happy to see that persons with disabilities loved working with our organization! I understand why people like this idea. I myself am in love with it, if it hasn’t been obvious until now. Our goal is to be embraced by the community, and if it’s the reality today, I like to believe that we’re on the right track.

The following video highlights their work in Azerbaijani with English subtitles.

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