Ann Oliver talks to Disability Horizons about how she came to start her own clothing line, XENI, for people with disabilities, amidst coping with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
I’m Ann Oliver, I am a 60-year-old former architect. I came to London from South Africa in 1981. I worked as an architect within a large North London practice, unusually enough specialising in the design of laboratories.
I loved my work and the people I met, clients, users of the facilities, fellow design team members and fellow architects. In 1990 the year my sister died of it, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. That is quite a long time ago now and the disease has progressed in my case to the extent that I use a wheelchair to get around and I have quite a lot of difficulty using my hands.
About 10 years ago I retired from architecture, subsequently also having to retire from painting because of the advancing lack of ability in my hands.
So time was hanging heavy. I was time rich and had no particular direction. Going to the opera one evening, I put on a dress that, as one would expect for somebody who could not stand, gathered uncomfortably in my lap. Without consciously thinking about it, I then had a great idea. I would design garments that sit comfortably on someone in a wheelchair.
Having decided that, I thought about what other interventions I could introduce that would be able to help women like me. For women such as myself, and those who have conditions like arthritis (who have difficulties with manipulating buttons and zips).
At the same time rare earth magnets were becoming much more affordable and their use to fasten garments for this sort of disability seemed completely appropriate for the time, part of the zeitgeist, what with the present popularity of iPads and their lovely magnetic covers.
My inspiration comes from the reactions I have to images that I see all around me. I do have difficulty manipulating scissors but I cut images that inspire me out of magazines and assemble them in a collection which I consult frequently and from which I draw inspiration.
We all know that at the moment jobs are few and far between and many people have to take jobs that lead nowhere. I want to establish a well-run business providing a number of people with long-term incomes and prospects. I want XENI trading for the long-term to be my legacy.
I view my capsule collection, satisfying as it does three aspects of disability, as unique. XENI plans to provide seasonally changing clothes for women who use wheelchairs, women with prosthetic limbs, and women who have difficulty manipulating buttons and zips. The current adaptable clothing websites provide entirely the wrong image.
When I started XENI I had the idea but I had no experience of designing clothing. I assumed that I would need a designer. By some strange coincidence I have a dear friend who is the head of fashion at Middlesex University. She said that she thought I could design the garments myself. At first this was quite a daunting task, but recently I have learned that I am not the first architect to have turned their hands to designing clothing.
It felt like fate was on my side as another friend brought me a book on adult education called Hot Courses. Inside it described a course run by Central St Martins called How to Start Your Own Fashion Label. I could not believe my eyes. I enrolled on the spot and began attending the course in Autumn 2010 .
As a result, at the beginning of 2011, I started briefing my pattern cutter, fitting models, recutting, refitting and finally, sampling. By the end of the year, I had a collection of sample garments ready for modelling, photographing and displaying on my website.
There have, of course, been difficulties. The first of these is the problems I have with my hands. I use voice recognition software for all my typing requirements (which I can heartily recommend to anybody).
The second is my age combined with using a wheelchair, as people like me can often be passed up or ignored. But I have been very luckily supported by the Centre for Fashion Enterprise.
Living in London is of itself empowering, it innately allows one to get over many hurdles that disabled people living elsewhere face. I am wonderfully supported by the London bus service. I luckily have a very manoeuvrable electric wheelchair which I’m easily able to get on to the buses. As a result (as long as I allow enough time) I can get anywhere in London.
London also has two of the best fashion schools in the country, possibly in the world. I have fortunately been able to go on courses at both, on one occasion even going with them by Eurostar to Paris to the best textile exhibition in the world Premiere Vision.
But I have had to start at the beginning again and fill in all the gaps though courses. However, now that I have launched the brand, some qualities that I developed through architecture are coming into play… the main one being my creativity, which had been lying dormant for many years. I have never run my own business before so this is a complete adventure and not one for which I had been prepared by my previous career.
My business is a bit too young to have had successes that I would like to take responsibility for. However, I have received positive feedback from those who I believe I have helped with some personal problems related with clothing.
I want to develop my jewellery line to help women who have difficulty manipulating those fiddly clasps. I also want to find people to make bags for women in wheelchairs that don’t fall off the lap, ones that could possibly also hold iPads, etc.
I hope and believe XENI will grow to become a brand that disabled women turn to for fashionable clothing that both flatters them and helps overcome problems.
By Ann Oliver