Son inspired designer to create clothing that helps people with disabilities dress easier — and look great

By Meg Fry
Livingston | Jul 5, 2018 at 11:04 am
From our print edition

It was the birth of her son, Oliver — and his desire to wear denim — that led Mindy Scheier to her life’s mission, she said.  

“When Oliver was 8 years old, he came home from school and said, ‘Mom, I want to wear jeans to school tomorrow because all of my friends will be wearing jeans, too,’” Scheier said. 

But for Scheier and her son, who was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, that did not simply mean picking out a pair of pants. 

Mindy Scheier and her son, Oliver Scheier, who inspired her to create Runway of Dreams Foundation.

“It was the first time I ever was forced to make a decision between letting him go to school without his leg braces and knowing he would not be able to go to the bathroom on his own, or saying to him, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t dress like the other kids,’” Scheier said. 

As a fashion designer, Scheier said, there was no way she was going to tell her son he couldn’t wear what he wanted when that was her life’s passion. 

“So, I looked at him and said, ‘Of course you’re wearing jeans tomorrow!’ ” she said. 

Though the conversation led to an all-night arts and crafts project for the mother of three, through a few alterations, Scheier successfully made it possible for her child to wear jeans to school with his friends the next day.

It also inspired her to create the Runway of Dreams Foundation in Livingston, a nonprofit organization that organizes global campaigns, speaking engagements, educational workshops, scholarships and media collaborations to expand employment opportunities and mainstream apparel options for people with disabilities. 

She recently spoke at Sobel & Co.’s Young Professional Women’s Breakfast regarding her career progression, to a room of more than a dozen women.  

“I would encourage all of you to rethink who your consumer is and how you might branch out from who you typically think of as your target market,” Scheier said. “Who else can be a part of your conversation and what it is you do in your own professional fields?” 

In other words, how, in any industry, can we be more inclusive overall? 

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Scheier said she hadn’t considered the inclusivity of her industry as she studied fashion design at the University of Vermont and the Fashion Institute of Technology in Florence, Italy, nor had she considered it for the nearly two decades she designed and styled for multiple fashion houses, including Saks Fifth Avenue and the INC private label collection for Macy’s. 

“I have been in the fashion industry my entire career and had no idea what it took to develop products for people with disabilities,” she said. “But, when Oliver was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, the basic notion we all take for granted of dressing oneself and being able to wear what one wants was not an option for him.” 

Because Oliver could not button or zipper jeans that would fit over his leg braces, Scheier said he was forced to wear sweatpants every day. 

Then came his simple yet fateful request in 2013. 

“He went to bed and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, how am I going to do this?’ ” Scheier said. “But I sat at my kitchen table, ripped apart a pair of jeans, took out the zipper and the button, replaced it with peel and stick Velcro, and stitched in an expandable rubber waistband. I then cut up the pant legs and put Velcro there, too, so I would be able to get them around his braces.” 

When Oliver awoke the next morning, he was able to dress himself — in something he actually wanted to wear — without assistance for the very first time. 

“I will never forget for the rest of my life the immediate, emotional response I got from him for that,” Scheier said. 

So, in hopes of finding additional clothing options for Oliver, Scheier said she took to the internet — only to be disheartened with the available selection of adaptive clothing. 

“It mainly was clothing for the aging population, as well as medicinal and unfashionable pieces,” she said. “I thought, if I knew how to manipulate clothing to make it easier for him to wear, maybe I also could take on the tiny goal of changing the fashion industry.

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For people with physical disabilities, Scheier said, it often can be difficult to find clothes that fit certain body types, especially when that means sitting in a wheelchair or missing part or all of one’s limb. 

Another model at the fashion show.

Then there are those with intellectual disabilities and sensory disorders who may have difficulty dressing themselves or present their caretakers with difficulties when getting dressed. 

It was a lot to process, Scheier said. 

“I only knew what I knew in my world with Oliver,” she said. “So, in my first year, I researched.” 

Scheier said she visited schools and hospitals, worked with physical and occupational therapists, and even asked people on the street in wheelchairs or with walkers what difficulties they had when getting dressed.  

“I needed to learn the commonalities between vastly different disabilities and the clothing challenges they face,” she said. 

Scheier said she would focus on the Top 3: 

First, closures such as buttons, zippers, hook-and-eyes and snaps often are difficult to use. 

“Velcro was only a temporary fix, as it does not wash well,” Scheier said. “But I looked at my refrigerator and said, ‘Magnets might work.’ ” 

Replacing typical buttonholes with magnets and opening items of clothing up in the front and on the sides also would improve maneuverability for those with low or hyper muscle tone and limited dexterity. 

“I also learned that a majority of disabled people were spending nearly triple the amount of what a piece of clothing normally would cost on alterations,” Scheier said.  

So, setting out to create adjustable clothing for each body type and size, Scheier said she designed adjustable waistbands and internal hemming systems for pant legs and sleeves of different lengths. 

“I also did not want to create any piece of clothing that was visibly different from what everyone else was wearing,” Scheier said. “I would not be one more reason why people with disabilities feel they can’t be a part of what is an enormous industry that directly correlates with how one feels about and presents oneself. 

“So, instead of creating my own line, I wanted to make modifications that could instead be implemented into mainstream clothing brands. I wanted big brands to see that it could be done, take the idea, and run with it.”

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Scheier created prototypes by purchasing clothing from big-box retailers and modifying the designs. 

Then she took them to the people who would need them, including Eric LeGrand, a former Rutgers football player who was paralyzed in 2010. 

“I spent a lot of time with him and his mother to experience what it took to get him dressed,” she said. “He has a lifting machine in his bedroom and two aides. It still took two hours every day.” 

When Scheier first showed LeGrand’s mother the prototypes, Scheier said she was in complete disbelief and grateful that such a simple idea could help change their lives. 

“I knew I wanted to be able to give the gift of time spent getting dressed back to those with disabilities and their caregivers,” Scheier said. 

Eric LeGrand, a former Rutgers football player who was paralyzed in 2010, spoke at the gala.

So, Scheier set out to connect with every contact she ever had made in the fashion industry, she said, including parents at Oliver’s school. 

“Wendy Bassuk connected me with her husband, David, who worked in the fashion industry and had unbelievable contacts to high-level executives,” she said. 

That ultimately is what led to her meeting with Gary Sheinbaum, CEO of Tommy Hilfiger, in 2015. 

“I took two months away from my family to prepare for that meeting, working day and night to modify Tommy Hilfiger’s children’s wear collection,” Scheier said. 

She was not five minutes into her presentation, she added, before Sheinbaum said, “We’re in.” 

Scheier first partnered with Tommy Hilfiger on the Spring 2016 adaptive kids’ collection, marking the first time a global fashion brand has modified its apparel to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities. 

Then, in fall 2017, Tommy Hilfiger expanded its adaptive line to include adult collections as part of its Adaptive Products Division. 

Scheier had been successful in her mission — but her journey only had begun. 

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According to Scheier, there are nearly 60 million people in the U.S. and nearly 1 billion people globally with a disability. 

Other brands, including Zappos and Land’s End, also have taken notice of how large a market it is. 

“It is the future of fashion to be inclusive of this enormous demographic that has not been considered before,” Scheier said. “And in the fashion industry, generally, a brand should not copy another’s design — but this is a time for the industry to come together and share ideas and best practices rather than trying to one-up each other.” 

As founder of the Runway of Dreams Foundation and as a consultant with PVH — one of the largest global apparel companies — Scheier continues to support and advise the Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive Products Division. 

But that is not all. Scheier said she will not rest until adaptive clothing has become as normalized as petite and plus-size sections. 

Gary Sheinbaum, CEO of Tommy Hilfiger.

“And, if we are really going to integrate people with disabilities, there are many other aspects of the industry that could be more inclusive,” she said. “As adaptive clothing becomes more mainstream, who is going to be in the fit sessions, the advertising campaigns, the magazine shoots?” 

According to Scheier, there are no talent agencies that currently represent people with disabilities for any industry. 

“For example, if someone is brushing their teeth in a toothpaste commercial, why must they be standing or have two arms? People in wheelchairs or people with one arm have to brush their teeth, too,” she said. “And I guarantee those watching that commercial will buy that toothpaste because, yes, while it is the right thing to do, it also is asinine not to go in this direction for the sheer marketing opportunity.” 

To assist, Runway of Dreams has developed an inclusive “look book” of models with disabilities, promoting people of all shapes, sizes and abilities for agencies, brands and retailers to be able to pull from for their campaigns. 

“With 80 percent of people with disabilities being unemployed, modeling is a great way to help employ them while working on adaptive products that they themselves can wear,” Scheier said. “And, in customer service, who better to answer the phone to talk about adaptive products than people with disabilities?”

Runway for Dreams also provides scholarships for the next generation of fashion designers hoping to further the reach of inclusive fashion. 

“We can start this mission, but they must continue it to help take it mainstream,” Scheier said. 

Runway for Dreams also regularly hosts symposiums and workshops that engage people with disabilities and members of the fashion industry in collaborative explorations of functional and fashionable design solutions. 

For example, Scheier herself will be speaking at Forbes Women’s Summit next week in hopes of reaching multiple brands and contacts in the industry. 

“I hope they will return to their work and say, OK, here we go — this is what we are going to be doing next,” she said. 

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It is very much a win-win for clothing designers, Scheier said. 

“The products say absolutely nothing about being for people with disabilities and are marketed the same way other clothes are,” se said. “Therefore, the hope is that they eventually become universal. 

“We tell our story by saying that these clothes are made for people with disabilities, but, hey, who wouldn’t want to have to (not) deal with buttons again?” 

While it may be a sobering reality, Scheier encouraged the women listening in the room to reflect on the fact that everyone everywhere is only simply renting their body. 

“At some point in your life, you will experience some sort of disability, whether it be from aging or from surgery or whatever,” she said. “Shouldn’t we have products in the world that will help every single one of us at that point in our lives?

“Maybe it is figuring out a way to have a spin class catered to those with disabilities, or scheduling training sessions with stylists for people who may never have put on makeup. But while we are focusing on the fashion industry, every single woman in this room can help their businesses include people with disabilities.” 

Affordable adaptability

Mindy Scheier, founder of the Runway of Dreams Foundation in Livingston, said people with disabilities should not have to pay more for clothing because of what they require. 

“But magnets cost close to $1 apiece, whereas buttons are less than a penny,” she said. 

Still, if Tommy Hilfiger took on the corporate social responsibility of manufacturing quality adaptive clothing that costs the same as their other products, other brands can, too. 

The Tommy Adaptive line includes women’s blouses, dresses and skirts; men’s button-down shirts and slacks; and jackets, T-shirts, sweaters and jeans worn by everyone. 

Its Stripe Signature Women’s Tee, for example, costs $39.50, despite the magnetic closures at the shoulders that conveniently expand the neck opening. 

Its Solid Men’s Hoodie, complete with a one-handed magnetized zipper, costs $89.50.

And, for kids, the Boy’s Stripe Polo ($29.50) features a hidden magnetized front closure designed to appear as a traditional button polo while the Girl’s Stretch Skinny Fit Jeans ($49.50) feature a Velcro and elastic waist, a magnetic fly closure designed to appear as a traditional button/zip fly, and magnetic openings at the outside seam of the pant hems to accommodate those with braces or orthotics.

Fashion show

The annual Runway of Dreams Fashion Show and Gala will take place Sept. 5 at Cipriani in New York City. 

“It will be held this year for the first time during Fashion Week in New York City,” Mindy Scheier, founder of the Runway of Dreams Foundation in Livingston, said. “We are very excited about that level of exposure and awareness.” 

Nearly 30 models will walk down the runway dressed in adaptive clothing from global brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Nike and Target. 

Last year’s gala raised over $1 million through the support of corporate sponsors, individual donors, attending guests, runway models and volunteers.

More Information

For more event information, go to: runwayofdreams.org.

Conversation Starter

Reach Runway of Dreams at: info@runwayofdreams.org or 201-919-5142.

Meg Fry | mfry@roi-nj.com | megfry3