PerceptivX

September 20, 2021

Victoria Jenkins is reducing inequalities with her fashion brand

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Victoria Jenkins is a designer, disability advocate, and founder of Unhidden. In 2003 20-year-old Victoria was diagnosed with gastrointestinal conditions and became one of the 14.1 million people living with disabilities in the UK. The struggle to manage her disability at work, a chance encounter with a woman with cancer, and a major void in the fashion industry led to the genesis of Unhidden. Founded in 2016 London, England-based Unhidden now is one of 5 UK businesses making adaptive fashion and the only one whose founder is disabled but has also been previously non-disabled. With her slow fashion socially responsive and eco-conscious brand she helping people with disabilities live with dignity, comfort, and style, change conversations as well as attitudes around disabilities, and create more inclusion and representation in fashion, beauty, and media. Victoria is brand ambassador for Models of Diversity and co-founder of No Comment Required, an ethical slogan clothing range focusing on positive representation for people with mental health issues and disabilities as well as all marginalized groups. She is also writing a book – ‘The Little eBook of Ableism.’

We sat down with Victoria to know how she is trying to fix fashion, end ableism, and learn what goes into building an inclusive adaptive fashion brand for people with disabilities.

Becoming a force for good change

Victoria Jenkins: “I studied fashion design at Istituto Marangoni London, graduating with a 1st in 2008. I interned for a year with a variety of designers before becoming a pattern cutter for an online retailer in 2009. I then moved to a more specialized role as a garment technologist (think of it as a clothing engineer- it was my job to ensure designs fit well, measured correctly, were made to exact specifications, was fabric and trim tested, and to cost before approving for production). I worked for suppliers to brands like Tesco, Primark, Long Tall Sally, and Phase Eight before going to work directly with brands like Jack Wills, Allsaints and my last permanent role which was at Victoria Beckham. In the background, however, I became disabled. I had a near-death experience with a burst ulcer in 2012, and have since had multiple surgeries and conditions diagnosed. It was during a hospital stay in 2016 that I met a fellow patient who inspired me to design adaptive clothing despite my own need for it. She couldn’t dress how she wanted for her office job as she had 2 stomas, a line in her arm, and one in her chest for medicines, and she was stuck in t-shirts and pajamas. I was sure someone would be working in this space but in 2016 there was so little out there, and nothing sustainable or aimed at younger people. The idea didn’t let go, so I quit my dream job to go freelance and pursue the idea. The name came to me at 5 am one morning- the disabled community is hidden, has historically been hidden- I wanted to bring us out, show us to the world proudly- make us ‘Unhidden’. I had 2 friends who supported this idea as well as small savings myself which is how we initially financed it. Over time they have invested as has a family; we also did a crowd funder at the beginning of the year and now we look to outside investment to grow.”

#WeAreUnhidden

Victoria Jenkins: “We have woven social justice into the core of our business and raise awareness around disability and the barriers still faced as well as showing disability in a positive, real light. 1 in 5 people in the UK and 1 in 4 in the US have disabilities- and yet we are only represented 2-3% in global media coverage. This is not enough and causes mental anguish for those who suddenly join the community and have no knowledge of the differences and the battles they may face in a largely inaccessible world. Fashion is about style and self-expression – it is also a necessity. We have to wear clothes, and people take it for granted that they can put on underwear, put on clothes, and go about their day. The disabled community doesn’t even have mainstream access to underwear, never mind actual clothing that doesn’t actually hurt them, cause discomfort, or interfere with their bodies or restrict access to their bodies. Unhidden to me is about bringing our community together, but also about design that isn’t noticeably adaptive; ‘hidden’ alterations that allow the wearer to live a more normal, dignified life both at work and at home. The designs have been thoughtfully created for people living with a wide range of impairments and needs, such as those who have a stoma, catheter users, wheelchair users, and those undergoing chemotherapy, as well as those who have dexterity issues or other invisible illnesses. The fastenings, openings, magnets, velcro, more cloth/less cloth, concealed zips, and fabrics have all been carefully selected to create a range that is functional, comfortable, stylish, and timeless. We also believe in people and the planet before profit- this is why we work with Ambio-N to source our dead stock cloth, and a fantastic factory in Bulgaria run by women that supports its highly skilled workers. We are also size and body inclusive, customizable, and have plans for more access to adaptive clothing through workshops and re-training. We hope to do that by launching a service early next year to adapt our communities’ existing clothing so they don’t have to buy a new wardrobe and can keep well-loved clothing that will now fit them. These alterations will be filmed and available for free so that we leave no one behind when it comes to accessing clothing, dignity, self-expression, and style in a world that has so long not acknowledged us.”

“Unhidden to me is about bringing our community together, but also about design that isn’t noticeably adaptive; ‘hidden’ alterations that allow the wearer to live a more normal, dignified life both at work and at home.”

Staying authentic

Victoria Jenkins: “This is still new for us/ me. I have worked with a co-founder on another business I co-own who has helped with some social media content and scheduling. I have found that simply engaging with our followers on social media and being transparent and honest has helped us grow. Being truthful about our challenges and our mission has helped trust to be built- we are doing things differently for a ‘new’ market (it is not new really but people are now paying attention- so it is felt like a new market- to the disabled population) so it will take a little longer. I am now looking to the disabled community and fashion students I have spoken with over the last year who have an interest in inclusive and adaptive design. The most important factor to me is passion and empathy- you cannot work in this space without knowledge of the need for adaptive design and the size of the community and their needs.”

Taking right decisions

Victoria Jenkins: “When Unhidden was initially founded we were considering also making a line of scrubs and hospital gowns that were sustainably made and fixed some of the dignity problems that are in traditional hospital wear- but I felt that we were confusing our message and focusing time on the wrong area- having that frank conversation with my friends/ stakeholders and commanding we paused the idea. It felt scary but has paved the way for us to be more open in our discussions but it isn’t always easy especially as I hate confrontation but once that decision was made we progressed so fast and in the right way that we knew we’d agreed on the right course of action.”

Setting the priorities straight

Victoria Jenkins: “I prioritize work by setting boundaries and allotting tasks by the hour or even the half-hour some days. I do not take evening calls and I have just about stopped with weekend calls too- there has to be space. Burnout is something I am still really learning to avoid- when things happen fast, I get swept up in it, and taking breaks goes to the back of my mind until my body decides for me. But I also use a quadrant system of urgent and non-urgent, important and not important tasks as a way of whittling down what must be done and what can wait. Speaking to other small business owners also certainly helps because sometimes you just need to vent about integrating something to someone else who isn’t great at tech either!”

A future that holds joy and hope

Victoria Jenkins: “Well, I am flexible on how this happens- I’d love to have a bricks-and-mortar store that is fully adapted, with medically trained staff in a luxurious setting. That said- I think the future may be in collaborating with existing brands across the spectrum of fashion so that they do an adaptive design with people in the community. I also hope to offer more in terms of the range, bring colors in, employ within the disabled community, and create a space where all talent is respected and utilized, and enjoyed.”

Getting started is the key

Victoria Jenkins: “To anyone looking to start a new business my advice will be to have some savings and make sure you are really prepared for what may be thrown at you. Find a group of people or a mentor to help keep you accountable. Set yourself boundaries and try as hard as you can to stick to them. Finally- JUST START! Everything can be revised, re-done, archived. Don’t waste time trying to be perfect, you will need to experiment with what works and how it looks- it doesn’t have to come out exactly as you want it immediately the important thing is to start. And be so passionate about it that the fire keeps you engaged, excited, and curious- if you don’t care about it, it’s harder to sell to others.”

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