Fashion for Everyone
The world’s first runway model in a wheelchair, business founder, wife and mother, Alexandra Kutas, tells us how London’s rain became the inspiration for her business and why she believes the future of fashion includes everyone.
How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you? I had a spinal cord injury at birth due to medical error. I’ve been using a wheelchair since I was a child, so I’ve never experienced a different version of myself: instead of taking my first step as a baby I had a first turn of the wheel. As a result, I’ve never felt I needed to be fixed – I just want to live this life as much as I can for as long as I can.
What does your business do and when was it founded?
My business, Puffins, is a premium outerwear brand that aims to redefine the norm by considering the physical challenges of disabled consumers as the main design inspiration, rather than as an afterthought. I founded the company in 2020 together with avant-garde Ukrainian fashion designer Fedir Vozianov.
The brand’s first signature product will be the Puffin Jacket, which is a rain jacket/windbreaker with a range of features that are unparalleled in the adaptive fashion market. Along with standard rain and wind protection, these include magnetic buttons for easy dressing, a detachable leg-covering for seated use, sleeve guards for manual wheelchair users, an easy read care label adapted for people with dyslexia and those who are visually impaired, a touch and feel size tag, and active fitting for ease and comfort of physical movement
Our approach is inclusion at every step.
We make our clothes at the United Nations-sponsored Production Centre in Poltava, Ukraine, which is a social enterprise that provides employment opportunities for women of vulnerable and socially disadvantaged backgrounds, including women with disabilities and those who have suffered from domestic abuse.
Our goal is to provide access to high quality, stylish and practical universal outerwear in every corner of the world where it is needed.
Why did you start the business? Share your story so far.
The initial idea came from my personal experience. After moving to London, I got soaked in the rain almost every day. I tried the wheelchair attachable umbrellas, but I was blown away in the wind like Mary Poppins! I was struggling to move around the city on rainy days but couldn’t find a solution that would both fit all of my physical needs and be something I would want to wear almost every day.
I dared to imagine a perfect product for myself – then I realised how common this problem is. So we decided to develop a raincoat that was as inclusive as possible. I interviewed people with different types of disabilities so that we could include features tailored specifically for people with vision impairment, autism spectrum disorder, learning disorders and physical disability. And that’s how rainy London became the inspiration for adaptive clothes innovation.
For our first collection, we chose bright, uplifting colours to celebrate the active lifestyle. The pandemic locked us all down but hopefully it be over soon – then nothing, including rain, should stop anyone from spending time outdoors, finally enjoying the fresh air.
What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?
It’s still quite challenging to change people’s perception. During my conversations with retailers, I learnt that if clothes are branded as adaptive on the e-commerce platform, sales decrease, and that’s why many retailers are reluctant to stock adaptive clothes. But we don’t want to see segregation in fashion between those with disabilities and the able-bodied, and this is why we have created a universal design with unity of inclusion at its heart. We will keep pushing this message forward and demonstrate to consumers and retailers the high quality of adaptive clothes. I personally believe that inclusion in design and representation is the only way forward in fashion.
What can we do to encourage more disabled entrepreneurs to start businesses – what is holding them back and what can we all do to help change that?
Sign up to be their first customers and do pre-orders for their businesses.
People should stop to think whether inclusive products and services made by disabled entrepreneurs are really only for people with disabilities. If they give it a try, they might see how features that are designed specifically for people with disabilities might benefit everyone. For example, I see how much all of our customers, regardless of physical abilities, enjoy using the magnet buttons while wearing a Puffin jacket.
What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?
I believe my biggest achievement is not letting anyone define who I am and what am I capable of. This drove me to be the world’s first runway model in a wheelchair, but I’ve also been told all my life that I couldn’t be a mother due to my spinal cord injury. When I found out I was pregnant, I couldn’t believe it, I even feared for my life. But when I saw that heartbeat on my first ultrasound scan and with the incredible support of my husband, I knew from that moment that nothing was going to stop me. Now I am a mother to a beautiful girl who will turn one this year.
If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability what would it be and why?
I’m 27 years old, the world’s first runway model in a wheelchair, a business founder, a wife and a mother. But sometimes when people find out that I had a birth injury that led to my disability, they say “I’m so sorry”. Some people still see my life as something that is coloured with tragedy.
I think of disability not as a tragedy, but as an opportunity to prolong life. I could have died at birth, but instead I’m living this incredible, sometimes challenging life. But most of the challenges are connected to the world’s inaccessibility, which can and should be changed. The mission of my company is to make this prolonged life a quality experience. Throughout history, disability has offered humanity another chance at living, and in the 21st century, we now have the means to make that life all it can be.
Who or what inspires you?
Nature, art, colours and talented people.
In terms of public figures, I would love to have a glass of wine with Elizabeth Gilbert and Michelle Obama. I’d ask Sara Blakely about fashion entrepreneurship. I see women that inspire me every day. Nowadays my daughter is the most inspiring lady of all.
Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?
The book Start with why by Simon Sinek and the masterclasses of Sara Blakely and Chris Voss.