The Future of Clothing
Winner of Enterprise Nation’s Female Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2021, Victoria Jenkins, tells us about how a chance meeting led to her setting up her own business.
How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?
I move around in how I feel about the word disabled: sometimes I say I’m invisibly disabled, sometimes just disabled. It’s still an up and down process and can depend on how I’m feeling physically.
It took me a long time even to realise that I am disabled, because of my own misconceptions around what being disabled means, so embracing being disabled has not only meant accepting that I won’t get better, but also finding the pride and joy within it as well.
What is your business?
Unhidden is a socially responsible adaptive fashion brand for people with disabilities. I set the business up in 2017 and have a ten piece collection for men and women which addresses as many access considerations as possible, from fastenings to fit, and from construction to fabric. I have thought of everything I could!
It’s also about community and inclusion: I campaign for other brands to consider and begin to use universal or inclusive design practices.
Why did you start the business? Share your story so far.
I studied fashion design and have worked predominantly as a garment technologist (like a clothing engineer) for 14 years, but I had never heard of adaptive design until 2016.
In 2016, I met a woman in hospital. She was in remission from ovarian cancer, but the treatment left her with a number of conditions which really limited the clothes she could wear: she was only able to wear t-shirts and jogging bottoms, and they still didn’t afford her much dignity. She couldn’t dress how she wanted to, whether for her office job, for parties, or for any other occasion. I was sure someone was catering to this clear need – I even realised that I could have done with adaptive clothing! – and started researching from my hospital bed, but found nothing.
The landscape has thankfully changed since then, and there are more and more people designing inclusively, which is awesome: this community deserves choice.
What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?
Given that only one penny in every pound raised in investment goes to a woman, the challenge of fundraising is one that is currently gripping me!
I think other challenges include the price point: as a small business, and one that refuses to use sweatshops, it’s hard to be as affordable for as many people as I’d like.
The threat is a well-established brand doing adaptive clothing without engaging with the community but at a cheaper price point that will undermine the work of existing adaptive designers who have been working on this for years but I have huge belief in what I have created!
I am also now at a point where I need more pairs of hands to help me. It’s been a year since we began trading and sales have been slow, but I’m not taking it too personally: the pandemic and Brexit have made life harder for everyone, and I just have to keep going.
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?
I think disabled people need to know that starting their own business is a viable route for them, and that could be done by showcasing existing entrepreneurs as well as tailored mentoring and even specific grants, as the financial structure is likely to be very different for them starting off. Scholarship programmes would also encourage higher education and again open the doors to entrepreneurship.
What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?
It’s so hard to narrow that down in what has been a life changing year! Putting on a fashion show with Models of Diversity that used a truly diverse and inclusive model and brand lineup was pretty special: seeing the joy and the love in that room is something I’ll never forget.
Winning Enterprise Nation’s Female Start Up of the Year award is a very, very close second: it’s not something I had ever thought I’d achieve.
If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability what would it be and why?
That we are productive, valuable assets to our communities and society as a whole: whether we work or not, there are things we can do that are of real benefit for everyone. People decide before they even meet or speak to us that we can’t work: that attitude holds us back and has to change!
Who or what inspires you?
This is such a hard question, because there are so many people I have met over the last few years that have taught me so much.
Angel Sinclair, the founder of Models of Diversity, is right up there: she is fearless when it comes to campaigning for equality and I don’t feel she ever gets the recognition she deserves. She’s been fighting for 11 years now and she is still raring to go, which I think is amazing: I have only been advocating for around two years, and I’m exhausted.
Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?
I can’t say that I have any one specific book or podcast: I feel like I consume so many, and each one has helped me.
I have found a lot of inspiration and help through webinars and panel talks: Enterprise Nation in particular have put on so many that I have really benefitted from.
Having said that, I would recommend Jules and Sarah the Podcast just because it is so uplifting and full of giggles, and sometimes that is exactly what I need to break up the work that is running a small business!