People with disabilities in China have often been stigmatized and struggle to be accepted socially while facing discrimination in all areas of their lives, from limited careers to poor public infrastructure.
In addition to socio-cultural barriers, high product development costs explain why the industry has still taken a slow approach to adaptive fashion.
This year, on March 13 (the beginning of National Deaf History Month), homegrown designer brand Private Policy partnered with activist and artist Chella Man to launch a capsule ear jewelry collection that celebrated the beauty of deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.
According to the latest statistics from the China Disabled Persons’ Federation, the total number of Chinese with disabilities now stands at 85 million, which accounts for 6.2 percent of the country’s total population (although, in reality, this number may be higher, as many are reluctant to claim this identity). But despite a huge presence, this segment tends to be “invisible” in China’s public arenas like work and retail spaces.
People with disabilities in the country have often been stigmatized and struggle to be accepted socially. In fact, they face discrimination in all areas of their lives, from limited careers to poor public infrastructure.
Furthermore, since tailoring products and marketing for the disabled requires more financial and human capital, brands rarely find it worth the return on investment. As a result, campaigns barely resonate with this demographic.
Even though “inclusivity” has become a hot buzzword in many marketing campaigns, Chinese consumers tend to understand it in terms of body shape or sexuality but rarely abilities. Here, Jing Daily focuses on this underrepresented consumer group in China and examines the fashion world’s attempts to engage them, particularly through local designer initiatives.
Social-cultural barriers that keep brands from tapping into disabled communities
Discriminating against people with disabilities is deeply rooted in Chinese culture because it has traditionally been linked to superstitious beliefs such as transmigration. This culture forces people with disabilities and their family caregivers to have “feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and helplessness in society,” said Marjolaine Moret, the managing consultant of Cherry Blossoms Intercultural Branding, to Jing Daily.
More importantly, to be unique or distinct is inconsistent with the collective mindset. Given that the adaptive fashion category is tailored to disabled communities, Moret pointed out that this might add to their feelings they aren’t treated normally.
Meanwhile, physically able people who care about “mianzi” (a sociological concept linking health to dignity) would feel upset about being considered equal to this group. Therefore, a brand move to become more inclusive could disturb existing customers who feel superior.
With these discriminations, disabled communities cannot compete with others in China. As such, the number of Chinese with disabilities living below the country’s poverty threshold was up to 17.6-percent higher, as reported by the China Disabled Persons’ Federation in 2020. Moret also recognized “lower consumption levels” or “poor purchasing power” as another barrier that keeps brands from tapping adaptive fashion.
How can fashion players embrace this minority?
In addition to socio-cultural barriers, high product development costs explain why the industry has still taken a slow approach to adaptive fashion. Tommy Hilfiger has been a leading player in the arena thus far, launching Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive in the US, Europe, Japan, and Australia. Luxury houses also customize one-off adaptive pieces for celebrities, such as Sinéad Burke’s Gucci dress worn at the Met Gala and Lady Gaga’s Louis Vuitton wheelchair.
So far, fashion brand engagements with disabled communities have primarily been driven by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies. Most show their support through donations, and a few have dedicated teams to work on the agenda. LVMH group’s collaboration with Runway of Dreams and Gamut Management on multiple educational sessions and events is one example. But Moret underlines that these are primarily implemented at the upper management levels and are rarely localized in foreign markets (therefore, not visible on the Mainland).
An alignment of corporate initiatives between headquarters and China is vital for addressing these consumers. As Moret suggests: “A sincere and empowering tone of voice aimed at helping and empowering disabled communities [is more persuasive] than just checking a diversity & inclusion box.” Meanwhile, long-term dedication to this debate is necessary alongside campaigns that can pave the way for label, line, and product launches.
Chinese creatives taking the lead
But with more exposure and a greater understanding of what this minority has been experiencing in China, local designers have become active and agile in the arena of adaptive fashion. This year, on March 13 (the beginning of National Deaf History Month), homegrown designer brand Private Policy partnered with activist and artist Chella Man to launch a capsule ear jewelry collection that celebrated the beauty of deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.
Each set in the Private Policy x Chella Man Ear Jewelry collection was priced at $620 (or separately at $385 for flat shape pieces) and $330 for the line art designs. The entire collection sold out on the brand website. Yet, it has still not been stocked at the brand’s retail channels in China — only on its global site, making the collection unavailable to many Chinese consumers with hearing difficulties.
In July, homegrown jewelry brand YVMIN launched a special project called “Xiao Yang’s prosthesis” to help amputee Yang Jia customize her prosthesis. The project was positively received on social platforms, including Weibo and Little Red Book. Plus, many disabled people with similar demands reached out to the brand, as a result, said YVMIN’s designer duo, Xiaoyu Zhang and Min Li, to Jing Daily.
The designers explained: “If there is an appropriate opportunity, we will partner with professional medical institutions for mass production and offer our designs to launch more fashionable prostheses.” But this service is not offered for now.
Meanwhile, the designers are committed to exploring “marginalized accessories” that allow more possibilities for body jewelry. Though there is a gap between campaigns and daily scenarios, these initiatives have, at the least, improved public awareness of this underrepresented consumer group.
As younger Chinese generations take bolder steps to manifest their individuality and pay closer attention to corporate social responsibility, luxury and fashion brands must vocally show their alliance to the disabled community. This stance is not solely relevant to these minorities, as it also shapes how the general public will approach this community.