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Sunday, Nov. 18, 2001

Universal fashion: One design fits all

Staff writer

Everyone knows how hard it is to find clothes that fit, but imagine how much harder it would be if you had special needs. If you were a wheelchair-user looking for pants with gathers at the knees, or a frail senior looking for a blouse with easy-to-detach buttons, chances are you wouldn't find them easily -- not in the boutiques in trendy Harajuku or even at major department stores.

In fact, you probably wouldn't have any choice other than to go to a shop selling products such as crutches and wheelchairs, where you'd find a small, unexciting selection of clothes to choose from.

This glaring gap in the market gave rise to the idea of UD (universal design) clothes. Commonly called "universal fashion," these clothes are designed in such a way that anyone can wear them. For example, stretchable fabrics are used for the garments, while their length and width are loosely tailored for comfort. Instead of normal buttons, Velcro or pointed buttons are stitched onto shirts so that they can be done and undone easily. Instead of laces, shoes are fitted with Velcro straps.

"I want the label 'UD' to disappear altogether one day," says fashion designer Yukie Izaki, 33. Izaki won the Best Entrepreneur Prize last month in the Triumph Angel Project, a contest established by Triumph International (Japan), Ltd., a women's underwear company, to encourage women entrepreneurs.

With the aim of fusing function and design, Izaki created the UD brand Bulan Pulau last year, targeting women between the ages of 25 and 35. The brand's lines are fashionable, colorful and comfortable, using natural materials like organically grown and processed cotton. They are sold at department stores and smaller shops all over the country, including Ginza Matsuya in Tokyo.

By carrying out a survey of 3,000 people, both with and without disabilities, Izaki discovered some of customers' most common problems with clothes design. And then she set out to reflect those concerns in her creations.

At first glance, Izaki's clothes could easily pass for typically trendy apparel, but according to Izaki, "every device has a purpose." For example, an easy-to-fasten zipper (the same kind as those used for skiwear) is fitted to a jacket so that it can be zipped up and down with ease. Also, instead of having the seam at the side, this is moved toward the front so there is no strain on a wearer stretching forward. There is also a Braille marking on most of the items she makes, to indicate the color of the garment.

Izaki -- who has wheelchair-users and other disabled people as models for her shows -- is adamant that designers should be more open-minded. "Until now, clothes were designed in a way that would make the person's silhouette look good in a "standing" posture. But we are often in a bent-forward position, so I think it is about time we designed and laid out patterns for clothes taking human movement into consideration," she says.

With her Triumph Angel prize money of 10 million yen, Izaki intends to open her own universal fashion shop in two years' time and hire disabled people, too, as staff members.

Not only designers, but also merchandise developers are taking part in the spread of universal fashion.

According to Yukiko Iguchi, a producer of UD goods, most disabled or elderly people do not shop for themselves. Their shopping is done by the people who take care of them, she says. "This divides disabled people from other consumers all the more."

In an endeavor to change that situation, Iguchi this year founded a company called Universal Y Net, which both designs and sells UD products and co-ordinates a network of volunteers to assist the elderly or disabled in their homes or workplace.

She also created a home page giving information about her products, which include easy-to-open purses and bags. In the future, customers will also be able to send in queries online, such as where to buy a particular specialty product, or offer suggestions for new products. The 44-year-old Iguchi says that she aspires to find ways to communicate directly with customers about their shopping needs. "Nothing will change unless disabled people have a chance to participate in the development of the products they want to use," she says.

Iguchi will sell her products not only on the Internet, but also through a "mobile shop," which will travel to events at welfare facilities or department stores. Iguchi also hopes to organize small trade fairs herself, in collaboration with other manufacturers and dealers of UD products. At the same time, volunteer staff will give fashion advice to her customers, including tips on makeup and hairstyle.

"When you ask disabled people what kind of merchandise they want, you're bound to get the answer, 'The same things that everyone else uses.' These people do not want to use anything special -- they just want things that have an appropriate added function to them," she says.

Universal Y Net's Web site (Japanese only) can be accessed at www.universal-y.net

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