When you consider that the fashion industry cranks out about 100 billion pieces of clothing a year according to some estimates, it's mind-boggling that the roughly 59 million Americans living with disabilities have so few options tailored to their needs.
Yet this is a reality very few fashion creatives are trying to change. In fact, when Lucy Jones graduated from Parsons in 2015, her senior thesis collection designed for wheelchair users was so unique that it landed her on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and earned her invites to display her work at MoMA, the FIT Museum and the Museum of Art and Design — all before she'd even fully launched a brand.
Having spent the first years after graduation participating in a residency at Eileen Fisher and joining the business accelerator at XRC Labs, Jones is excited to finally launch her brand Ffora this month. She describes it as a "disability-first, adaptable for all" line of accessories built with wheelchair users in mind.
"[Working on this] has been the hardest two years, but the best two years of my life," Jones says on the phone. "I feel we're onto something."
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Like her senior thesis collection had been, Ffora was born from hours of collaboration and conversation with the disabled community. While she had worked primarily on ready-to-wear as a student, it was an in-person moment with one of her focus groups that caused Jones to shift her focus to accessories.
"It was raining that day, and people were coming into the focus group with bags on their chairs. They were sitting on phones, keys and wallets [to keep them dry]," Jones explains. "That's when I decided to ask about accessories, and where people were keeping their valuables — things like, 'What do you do with a hot cup of coffee? What do you do with your credit cards?' I realized that there wasn't really any solution for how to attach bags and accessories to mobility devices. And that was how the brand began."
Ffora is launching with three accessories — a cup holder and two different sizes of leather bag — all of which are built to fit with Ffora's proprietary attachment system, which is essentially a dock or holster for attaching the accessories to the customer's wheelchair. Compatible with 21 different manual wheelchair brands that manufacture over 170 different wheelchair models, the $49 attachment system is meant to be an anchor product that works with every piece in the Ffora product range, which will continue to expand over time. Prices for the different accessories, which are for sale on Ffora's website, range from $25 to $138.
Having spent a year working under the sustainability leaders on Eileen Fisher's team, Jones also understands the importance of designing pieces that will stay in use and out of landfills. To that end, she's made durability a key factor in her approach.
"Wheelchairs are supposed to last five to seven years," she notes. "I wanted my products to last that long and beyond. These products have to withstand bumps; they have to withstand the elements. It's not just a bag that you can tuck under an umbrella. It has to be really, really solid."
Pre-launch, the response to the products has been overwhelmingly positive, with figures like model Jillian Mercado, Paralympic gold medalist Steve Serio and dancer Jerron Herman all cosigning the brand. Part of that undoubtedly comes from Jones's ability to balance form and function: While she's put two years of R&D into creating just a handful of products to make sure they actually work for her target customer, she also possesses a fashion-forward design sensibility that speaks to the vibrance, creativity and desire for self-expression that she's seen amongst her wheelchair-using friends.
"I wanted the community to lead the company," Jones explains. "A lot of people that we work with, that have been so excited, who starred in our campaign, who have been working with us from the beginning — we wanted to make sure that their voices were heard."
To that end, Jones has gone to great lengths to involve wheelchair users in the creation process. Everything from the visual branding to the wording to the price point were carefully vetted by individuals who have disabilities that served as paid consultants and focus group members. And Jones notes that even the owner of the factory that makes Ffora products was inspired to get involved (and let Jones produce with smaller-than-usual minimums) because his own father was disabled.
In short: when Jones talks about community, she's not talking about a corporate branding exercise to create a viral hashtag. She's serious about trying to meet a genuine need from a group of people fashion has consistently underserved. Asking endless questions and testing products over and over might take more time than the traditional fashion company is willing to put into an individual product, but for Jones, it's the best way to ensure that she's actually filling a void rather than creating more stuff in a world already clogged with it.
"Me and my colleagues always talk about this, like, 'it feels weird to be contributing again [to the fashion system],'" she says. "But when you see the need, and then you see the expression on someone's face when they're using the product, you're like, 'Oh, this is something no one is really doing.'"