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LIFESTYLE - June 2012

Earlier this year, a friend referred me to a discussion on Radio 3 featuring Ann Oliver, the founder of the Xeni Collection. She said:

Xeni is a young fashion label designing, manufacturing and retailing online couture quality clothing specifically designed for women who use wheelchairs and clothing and jewellery for women who have difficulty with the manipulation of clasps, buttons and zips.
We are unique in using magnets for fastening, and cut away seats for ease of dressing. In addition we offer trousers tailored for either a sitting or standing person. We offer standard sizes but are willing to accommodate your special needs.

Ooh, how thrilling, I thought, something new, must take a look. I am interested in fashion and style but both are such subjective topics, even without adding in the complexities of a myriad of disparate disability conditions, that I tend to steer clear of them on my site other than occasionally mentioning some special designers - like Carole Waller - or another site catering for disability fashion - Wheelie-Chix - a site which annoyed me intensely at the time so I was, maybe, a little harsh about it. I did spend a long time writing about shoes … OMG, shoes! - but never really resolved the shoe problem, ending up with one, very expensive, pair of shoes that I hate ... and they'll never wear out - duh, can't walk - so I'm stuck with them. I badly need some new indoor footwear but am waiting until my current pair are in shreds before trying to find some more.

Only once have I mentioned my approach to resolving my personal style with my life on wheels - Wrapping up - and, to date, I haven’t really wavered from that though I continue to have difficulty finding the quality tops and pants that I want at price points I consider reasonable in my size. The every day stuff is tricky for me because my clothes get tugged and pulled about, washed a lot, must be cotton (because sitting all the time makes synthetics uncomfortable) and black - would you believe? - can be hard to get in summer. I don’t have a problem with ‘occasion’ wear as Ann Oliver seems to have done because I am able to pay more for this and it gets much less wear and tear. The bane of my life is clothing with patterns, bows, diamante and colour, closely followed by the widespread use of rayon, polyester, viscose and too short body or leg lengths and short sleeves!

As I looked at the Xeni Collection, I had a lot of thoughts - bear in mind I am a severely paralysed, non-standing, wheelchair user - for example:

  • The tunics look too much like hospital gowns and the dresses are too similar in style, fitting just one body shape.
  • Hate that bit cut out of the back - would feel like my knickers were on display and it would just bother me - would tops over trousers look better?
  • Um, knee length. A lot of us cannot keep our knees together so this may not be a good look.
  • I’d need more stretch and comfort than those trousers appear to yield.
  • The coats are voluminous - I’d look even huger - and why struggle in and out of sleeves at all? Get a wrap.
  • The jacket is too fitted for easy movement in a wheelchair..
  • The fabrics are all synthetic - I cannot be alone in wanting natural fibres for seated comfort?
  • The prices are too high. I do understand why - small volumes, made to order equals high prices - but surely, there is too much mass market competition for these prices to be viable?
  • How much of a market is there for occasion wear at these price points for wheelchair users who cannot source what they want from the standard RTW market?
  • Do wheelchair users want to use a special site for wheelchair fashion? How does one reach out to establish the needs of the generic group defined as wheelchair users?

If that all sounds a bit negative, I thought there was a lot to like too. I thought the magnets idea was great and I do think there is a market, and a growing one, for those of us with specific needs that the mass market does not meet. Everyone has to start somewhere and it's only logical to start with what you know and the market with which you are familiar. I applaud the concept, site design and energy input evident.

That the current Xeni Collection does not suit my personal needs is incidental because, by definition, personal style is subjective and no one product offer will ever satisfy everyone. I am no expert on other people’s style aesthetic and physical difficulties nor am I an expert on mass market fashion. My personal tastes in fashion and style have pretty much always been 'idiosyncratic' and not representative of the mainstream. Ann Oliver has clearly invested thought, time and money in this project and I am sure she knows her market, will listen to feedback and evolve her business in line with it. I wish her every success.

Meantime, if like me, you’re a plus sized wheelchair user who cannot get out, shops on the internet and you want something interesting, you could take a look at:

UK sites: Walkers of Pottergate, Box 2, Poetry, Wall, Devotion, Anna Scholz, I dare to be, Oska-London,

US & European sites: Navabi, Eileen Fisher, Yoek, Saks-Salon Z, Nordstrom, Daphnes Larger Sizes, Blue Fish, J Jill - all sites that ship to the UK.

I do recommend checking back to monitor developments on the Xeni site. I certainly will. It would be great to see Xeni succeed as, in disability terms if not national financial ones, we really are all in this together, aren't we?

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