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A New Design

Heather Reimers in her power wheelchair and a fashionable red dress. Reimers sits with her hands folded and ankles crossed in front of a large bookshelf.

Heather Reimers is at ease with her sense of style. Her look is a striking contrast of classic, sweeping dresses and youthful tattoos. But her love for fashion goes beyond the aesthetic. She cares about not just what she is wearing, but who made it, how and why.

From a young age, her artistic talents lead to her pragmatic approach to disability. Born with brittle bone disease, Reimers’ height made taking ownership of her own clothes a necessary skill from a young age.

“I learned how to sew when I was four, I had to hem my pants. I was going to have to hem every pair of pants I would wear my whole life”

Later, she was introduced to Edith Head and the endless possibilities of costuming. She adored Lady Gaga and Alexander McQueen, patron saints of the avant-garde. Growing up, her love for fashion made embracing it as a career path a no-brainer and she dove into her formal education with gusto, in spite of the prejudices that people with disabilities face in the fashion industry. Reimers found herself restricted by the logistical realities of the business world.

“We were required to take certain classes . . . and one of them was a global sourcing class. We had to read a book, it’s about how a t-shirt is made. Where does everything go? From the growing of the materials, to the end of the shelf-life. So we saw how it started in Texas, went to California, Vietnam, India, the entire cycle and we broke down what is going into this shirt. Just one shirt.”

Her education began focusing on the skeletal structure on which the fashion world is built, and didn’t allow space for designing for unique functional needs, or for body types outside the norm.

“In college, I really, really, really struggled. At my university they teach ready-to wear, which is what’s going to get you a job. They don’t teach you functional, cool stuff until your last year. So I’ve tried really hard in my designs to put functional pieces into everything I was making. So I wouldn’t use snaps, because they are hard for some people.”

Her desire to address the needs of the disability community, and allow her designs to reflect more than a cookie cutter template conflicted at times with the focus of her studies, but she never lost a personal interest in designing inclusive, functional clothing.

“I got really good at jackets, anything that would be easy to pull on. My friend has MD [Muscular Dystrophy], she can’t find a good jacket to save her life…I wanted to look at what the fabric could do for the client . . .Velcro is an easy one to go to, but unfortunately isn’t the most appealing.”

Reimers' own experience shaped her frustration with the limitations of the clothing options for people with disabilities.

"[Shopping is] a gigantic pain in the butt. I have to shop in both the little kids and adult section. So I get some weird looks in Target”

After graduating, Reimer fully committed to her career and relocated to the west coast.. It became apparent that by dedicating her life to this field, she would be forced to become complicit in a system that did a great deal of harm.

“I took an internship last summer in Los Angeles and had a terrible experience. It was everything they warn you about, thrown into a bubble. I got the advantage of seeing how things are built because they had a factory right up stairs. . . I saw how much waste goes into these products, how poorly people are treated. . . . The awful side of fashion.”

Despite her continued passion for design, form and function, the realities and scope of the problems within her industry were hard to stomach.

“Most companies doesn’t actually have factories in house. So they have to send that to China, or Indonesia or Vietnam. Which is where my personal morals came into it.”

Then Reimers began to have a sense of complicity, and was conflicted about pursuing fashion as career. Her desire to merge her youthful passion for color, design and innovation with the stark realities of the fashion industry continued, but without direction.

Yet despite the near fundamental hostility the fashion world has for non-traditional body types, she views it less as a problem and more as an opportunity to educate others.

“The unfortunate truth is it costs quite a bit to make an accessible garment. The reality is you can’t make money from anything. . . I’m not joking you. Fast fashion is there to make money. They are there to make their CEOs a lot of money and if they can’t sell to a large quantity then they don’t really care.”

As for the brief experiments major brands have made towards accessible clothing for children, they have left her somewhat unimpressed.

“I think it’s great, but once again it’s skipping over adults. Tommy Hilfiger and Target are targeting the white people, the middle class white people who have the disposable income to spend on their children. Not necessarily the family with a kid with a disability that are living paycheck to paycheck.”

Reimers’ understanding of the fashion industry doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions, or easily digestible narratives surrounding accessible design. Too often, issues facing the disability community are painted as gaps in knowledge, issues that could so easily be addressed if only we changed some minds, humanized our community, or crafted the perfect, unsurpassable PSA.

Reimers holds to no such misconceptions. Clothes, like the people who wear them, are a product of complex systems. A carefully calibrated ecosystem designed to meet a consumer need, and make profit doing.

For Reimers, having an honest conversation about making large scale industries accessible demands large scale thinking, and an acknowledgement that people with disabilities not being a consideration in the fashion world isn’t an accident, but the result of purposeful actions.

“So it’s a matter of giving people with disabilities good paying jobs, and helping them get into the workforce more…and now fashion companies can get into a market, because we have more money to spend.”

The solution is not education, but empowering the disabled community to have purchase in our economic systems, and an industry whose success or failure doesn’t depend on exploitation or environmental harm. As a first step towards sustainability, Reimers encourages people to think about how to re-use their old clothes instead of just throwing them away.

Whether inside the fashion world or outside of it, it’s clear Reimers is going to commit herself to the values of economic and disability justice. She loves fashion, and is working towards a new design.

Learn more about people with disabilities entering the fashion world here:


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