FFORA: The accessories label driving genuine inclusivity within the fashion industry

The disabled community is often left behind when it comes to fashion. Jessica Carroll talks to Lucy Jones about her wheelchair-friendly accessories label FFORA, challenging the status quo, and how her work gives a platform to those whose voices are so often ignored.

Lucy Jones will never forget how her college professor set her the ultimate challenge. “He asked me to design a solution that would one day change the world.” Seven years on, maybe she’s done just that.

Jones, 27, from Cardiff, created FFORA, an accessories label that’s specifically designed with wheelchair users in mind. It includes an attachment system that, for once, truly merits the word ‘revolutionary’.

The designer is now based in New York and agrees to speak to me by phone. “It’s been a while since I’ve heard a British accent,” she exclaims. The creative director and CEO of accessories brand FFORA has been living in the city (alongside her partner and shaggy rescue cat, Keenu) ever since she received a scholarship to study fashion design at the prestigious Parsons, where she eventually went on to win Womenswear Designer of the Year 2015 for her wheelchair-friendly graduate collection.

Since her Seated Design collection, Lucy has – among other career-defining accolades – been spotted in the Forbes 30 under 30 and is being commissioned to produce pieces for display in The Museum of Modern Art.  She’s currently working non-stop with FFORA, her brand which aims to bring functional and fashionable accessories, such as coffee holders and bags to the wheelchair community – all of which, she explains, are designed to be seen.

Lucy has adjusted to life in New York. She speaks in her subtle Welsh lilt about how she had to fight to find her own calling. “What’s the point in me going off into this industry and just joining this conveyor belt… I had so much more to say,” she recalls thinking.

Photo: FFORA

The turning point came when her professor, coincidentally another Welsh in New York, saw her uncertainty and set her that life-changing challenge to use her talents to disrupt the norm. Not knowing where to start, she went home and confided with her family.

Chatting to her cousin who has hemiplegic cerebral palsy – a condition which affects muscle movement on one side of the body – was when her breakthrough moment came. “I’d never thought that he might have difficulty with clothing.” From the little things able-bodied people take for granted, such as tying shoelaces and doing up buttons, to day-to-day things around the house like using a chopping board, Jake’s experiences opened Lucy’s eyes to where the design world was failing.

“I felt ignorant, and then I felt ashamed. As designers, we literally just design for what we know and what we see – never involving marginalised communities or people with disabilities.” Aware that not all disabilities have the same requirements, she explains how she quickly understood that to truly be effective, she’d have to start by focusing her efforts on something more specific than the disabled community as a whole. After that, Lucy’s realisation snowballed into focus groups and panels with people within the community. With that, her wheelchair-friendly brand FFORA was born.

There are currently around 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK alone. And, as disability styling expert Stephanie Thomas phrased it in her now-famous 2016 TEDx Talk, “We have more clothing in stores for dogs than we do for people with disabilities.” FFORA’s approach to adaptive clothing is certainly a much-needed change for the industry. Jourdie Godley, a fashion consultant and one of FFORA’s seated models agrees. “Growing up I had no one like myself to look at in fashion and I always thought it may be just a pipe dream to be a part of the industry.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this inclusive approach to design didn’t come easily to the exclusive fashion industry. FFORA’s biggest obstacle? “Firstly, it’s the stigma and lack of education from able-bodied people,” explained Lucy. “It really is evident when you’re designing in this space, let alone raising investment money, that people have no idea about the needs of people with disabilities.”

“On a more general level,” adds the designer, “it’s the lack of understanding that people with disabilities come with a variety of needs.” With a tone that made her rolling eyes detectable despite the 3,500 miles distance between us, it’s clear Lucy has been witness to this ignorance many times. “The wheelchair logo doesn’t mean all people with disabilities are wheelchair users!”

Photo: FFORA

She’s quick to point out how this has transferred into the ethos of her own company. FFORA’s products aren’t made for everyone and they are aware that not every disability is being targeted with their products – but then, this was never the aim. “There are so many other disabilities and needs that we can’t cater to everyone; we have a lane, and this is our space.”

And how exactly do FFORA products tackle these issues? The team designed a revolutionary attachment system – similar to a clamp – which fastens to the lower tube of over 170 different types of wheelchairs. This can then secure a number of products to the chair, meaning their products have quickly become essential within the community. Their coffee cup holder, for example, means users no longer have to rely on ill-fitting models made for pushchairs. “The FFORA cup holder has given me newfound independence, by using it I no longer worry about spilling a drink on my lap and all over my pants which is a huge deal for me,” explains Jourdie.

The brand launched with a relatively small product offering as FFORA isn’t constrained by seasons or collections. Emphasising how seriously they take the testing process, Lucy explains that the, “FFORA Fam,” – a close knit group of users who Lucy now sees as family – are the ones who decide when a product is ready to launch.

“There’s this one guy, my best friend actually, Steve [Serio, a Paralympic gold medallist] who we gave a prototype to. Now he won’t give it back – he says it’s his necessity!” We both agree that compliments don’t get much better than that.

Their research and planning have paid off and the team have just launched a range of new products. Getting into the CEO spirit, Lucy reels off their recent projects; hard shell bags for active users and tumblers are among the new products. She appears excited about the range’s hardy materials, futuristic styles and neutral colourways – a far cry from the bold, lollipop hues of their original Essentials bag. Giftables are also being promised to further establish FFORA as a lifestyle brand. In fact, she’s organising the promo shoot – props, models, budget – while we speak.

Photo: FFORA

While she’s excited for the shoot, Lucy also shares how she often feels nervous about using models – all of whom have become good friends since working closely with them at FFORA – in their promo. Many such new talents, such as Jourdie Godley and Bri Scalesse, have been able to launch modelling careers after their shoots were picked up by the likes of Teen Vogue and High Snobiety.

“We feel such responsibility as well, knowing that we are saying something and putting people we have really close relationships out there.” Negative comments and trolls are inevitable, and is something Lucy tries to prepare her models, many of whom have no formal media training, for, as well as possible. But it’s also one of the designer’s favourite parts of the job. “We just have this pride that we are able to make connections and support the people we love, it’s been phenomenal.”

Jourdie, who often takes centre stage in their shoots, explains that FFORA is so much more than just an accessories label. “FFORA has brought me closer to my own community in ways that I would never have imagined before. Through FFFORA I have also met amazing photographers, stylists and friends that I will continue to work with from now on.”

Providing a platform for the disabled community in this way, while not intentionally planned, is an idea at the core of the company. In fact, Lucy exclaims, even the brand name FFORA is Latin for forum; a platform for speaking out (and not Fashion For All, as she explains has previously been erroneously published).

Within the fashion industry, there’s always a fear that a brand offering representation to a minority group might be treated as a short-lived curiosity. Lucy is conscious that she doesn’t want to be seen as a saviour for the disabled. I push for her thoughts on the subject; what are her recommendations for building a brand that is sincere about lifting the disabled community and not treating it as a novelty?

Photo: FFORA

“If people are going to be sincere, they need to touch every aspect of the company. They need to train everyone from their leaders, all the way down to the retail staff in their stores.” She dislikes inclusivity departments, she adds. “You can’t just have one group passionate about it and desperately trying to educate their colleagues.”

Her thoughts aren’t just her own but are also shared by those in the community whom she interacts with daily. “People with disabilities would love to have an accredited board to vet this sort of thing; to create a standard brands have to pass.” Without such, Lucy fears companies use the inclusion of those with disabilities as purely a PR stunt.

As a seated model and brand consultant himself, Jourdie is used to fighting for better representation within the industry and agrees with Lucy. “I honestly would like to see more people with disabilities in the industry in many capacities. To see seated models participating in runway shows and ad campaigns for major brands in an authentic way. By authentic I mean having the model actively participate without their disability being highlighted and them being treated just like every other model,” he explains.

Lucy accredits the slow improvements to a lack of education. “There are so many simple things that transform life for a person with a disability.” Mentioning an incident where a friend was unable to purchase anything in a store because all they used were small buttons, Lucy explains that oftentimes cost is what stops brands from being inclusive. “As a designer, knowing how these products are seen and produced, everyone knows it’s cheaper to do small buttons.”  This issue could have been resolved with bigger buttons more spaced out, in order to cut even on costs and allow more people to use the product. “There are so many simple changes and it’s so frustrating.”

Brands who claim to be inclusive but aren’t give Lucy another reason to be sceptical of the industry. “I really think it shows when you’ve done your research – did you even have someone who has a disability in the room when you made the decision?” Similarly, Jourdie argues, “True representation starts from within, not on Instagram. By having people with disabilities out in the Industry people’s perceptions of us will hopefully change for the better.”

Photo: FFORA

Lucy welcomes anyone to try and be more inclusive; the more people on board, the more conversations are started. She mentions River Island as an example where representation has been successful in the past. “Just by having someone out there who looks like you and is slaying it in the fashion industry will only further prove why representation is important,” adds Jourdie.

But, Lucy insists, brands don’t always need to produce an adaptive collection to improve: “There are stylists who know what works for those with a disability who could curate an offering from what’s already in store.” For example, cropped tops work well for those in wheelchairs as the fabric doesn’t bunch while they sit. Such a simple curation allows wheelchair users to find pieces that look great on them, while also saving on alteration costs.

Lucy explains how her work has highlighted to her that there’s a long way to go in order for disabled people to feel fully represented within fashion, but welcomes any attempts by people trying to educate and learn. “I think people just don’t know where to start really. There are so many things going on in the world. It’s a really tense time right now in fashion and in the world, whether it’s gender equality or diversity and inclusion.”

And that’s where Lucy comes in. “Everyone loves the story of a female founder,” she explains. It’s evident this is something she feels often overshadows the stories of those she is trying to champion in the wheelchair community. “But the reality is that the company is not about me. The end goal has always been to make sure we’re doing our jobs and elevating the community.” It’s clear, despite her accomplishments and awards, that her professor’s challenge to her to change the world is still at the forefront of everything she does.

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