Stacey Monsen got frustrated trying to find pants that fit her daughter, Elinor, who has autism.
Leggings that were long enough for her then 7-year-old body often did not have enough room at the waist to accommodate the diapers she still wore. So Monsen started making her own clothes for Elinor and considered launching her own line of adaptive clothing for children with special needs.
But she quickly realized the prices she’d have to charge would be higher than she’d like, especially for families already grappling with lots of medical costs. So she turned to her employer, Minneapolis-based Target, where she is a product designer.
“I just had this realization of what an amazing platform this would be, where we could take pieces that already exist in the main Target line and just slightly alter them so that the adaptations are invisible,” she said.
“So you could look like your peers. You could look like your friends.”
And the costs for such items would be more affordable for families.
Monsen and a small group of other Target designers pitched their bosses on the idea. Not only did the higher-ups say yes, but they pushed up the timeline to roll it out.
In the summer of 2017, Target launched its first adaptive clothing items, with 40 sensory-friendly pieces under its Cat & Jack kids label. The shirts and pants are made with super-soft cotton knits, have flat seams and don’t have tags that can be especially itchy and irritating for children with autism.
The company followed that up soon after with more items with features such as hidden openings around the stomach to allow access to the abdomen for children who may have feeding tubes and pants without back pockets for those who use a wheelchair.
Target continues to expand the effort into more categories.
Last year, for example, it introduced adaptive Halloween costumes for children, with options such as a pirate’s ship and a princess carriage for children in wheelchairs. The costumes quickly sold out. Target is planning to increase its assortment this fall and to expand into adaptive adult costumes, too.
In its Universal Thread denim line, Target has rolled out adaptive jeans designed for adults in wheelchairs, with features such as a higher rise in the back. And it now has about 20 adaptive items in its Pillowfort line such as hideaway tents, super-soft cocooning chairs and crash pads.
“We’re just really getting started,” said Julie Guggemos, Target’s chief design officer. “Inclusion is a core value of Target. As we think about products in all categories, our goal is to find ways to ensure all guests can participate in our offerings.”
The adaptive items are sold only online and remain a small fraction of Target’s overall assortment. Target declined to break out sales of adaptive items.
In addition to a number of niche brands that specialize in adaptive clothing with lots of technical features, other mainstream retailers are beginning to dabble in this space, too, providing more budget-friendly options.
Zappos.com has a dedicated portion of its website for adaptive apparel and shoes by brands such as Nike and Tommy Hilfiger. And last year, Kohl’s added sensory-friendly and other adaptive pieces to three of its largest private-label kids’ brands.
“From a Target standpoint, this isn’t about competition or being differentiated,” said Guggemos. “It’s about doing what’s right for humans. I’m happy that more retailers are expanding their offerings.”
Monsen and the small group of Target designers who first launched this initiative as a passion project on top of their regular jobs still meet regularly to talk about new ideas. Some of them are also parents of children with disabilities. And their numbers are growing.
As they’ve gone through this journey, they have spent time with experts and families through Minnesota Autism Center and the National Federation of the Blind.
And they have tapped a group for parents of children with special needs through Target’s ability awareness network as a resource.
“Each individual with a disability has a different story,” said Monsen. “So we’ve been looking at what are some of those themes across all of them and how can we serve those needs most authentically. We want to make sure that the community is involved in every aspect of this.”
One thing they heard a lot, for example, is that some parents will put their children in one-piece swimsuits as a way to keep their hands out of their diapers as they get older, since many brands don’t make onesies past 24 months.
“Families have been finding all of these hacks in order to make everyday life easier,” said Monsen, who found plenty of her own hacks over the years.
They decided it was important for Target to offer solutions for older kids so they added bodysuits with snaps on the bottom like a onesie to the offerings.
In some cases, they’re able to talk directly to older children with disabilities for insight. But in other cases, they have to rely on families for guidance since some children are not be able to clearly relay their thoughts.
That was the case with Monsen’s daughter, Elinor, who was not verbal when she was younger.
“She couldn’t necessarily communicate what it is that she needed or wanted,” said Monsen. “So she would not want to wear a shirt and I would have to figure out why. Or she would not want to wear certain leggings. So it just became this process of deductive thinking.”
Target continues to look for ways to make products more accessible for different populations. One area the company is exploring, for example, is the needs of those with rheumatoid arthritis who would appreciate features such as bigger buttonholes on clothing and bottle caps that can be opened with the palm of the hand.
“It’s incredibly passion-driven work,” said Guggemos.
“It gets our team excited to come to work every day.”