It was in the midst of smartly dressed guests at a dinner party that the idea to start Chairmelotte was born. The men were wearing tuxedos and the women were in cocktail dresses. One of the ladies sat at the dining table in a wheelchair. She continually tugged at the hem of her dress to stop it from riding up, while she herself kept sliding downwards on the slippery lining. Her dress was clearly being a nuisance to her. She happened to address fashion designer Christa when she finally sighed:
“A dress and a wheelchair are a terrible combination. I never wear a dress when I can avoid it, which is such a shame, because I really love a nice frock.”
Christa could not get these remarks out of her mind. Having always been especially interested in the technical aspects of designs, she started wondering. Surely it should be possible to create a dress that would meet all requirements of wheelchair users? She teamed up with her son Floris to take on the challenge of producing wheel chair clothing.
To design is to listen
“It’s so important to realise what it is that someone really needs. And it’s those requirements I want to translate into a perfect design. To design is to listen.”
“We were curious to know if more women wheelchair users were having the same clothing problems. And does it make a difference what type of chair you’ve got? What’s the role of the wearer’s physical possibilities in connection with the cut of the fabric and the way it hangs? So we had conversations and individual interviews with wheelchair users to find out what they really need.”
We organised group discussions about clothing experiences. It soon became clear that for most people finding suitable clothes often is a time-consuming affair. You usually tend to know what you need. For example, some extra space in the waist area, trousers without back pockets, a nicely tailored dress. But these kind of clothes are hard to find. And if, in addition, you would like some zippers in the sleeves because you wear arm braces, then that’s were it ends. The participants confirmed our impression that well-fitting clothes for wheelchair wear and standard ready-made clothes are really two different things.
The conversation was delightful and warm-hearted, and we were impressed by the candour of the participants as they related and demonstrated what special ways and tricks it may take to manage dressing and undressing on your own.
We Got Worldwide Encouragement
We had a wonderfully inspiring experience at the 2013 Wheelchair Dance Sport World Championships in Cuijck, the Netherlands. There we met dancers and other participants from all around the world, from Mexico to Belgium.
More than 60 countries were represented. Talking with hands and feet, we communicated with lots of men and women about casual day-to-day wear and, of course, dance wear. And we received worldwide encouragement: without exception everyone urged us to carry on with our initiative. After all, for people living in a wheelchair there wasn’t any clothing on the market that was both practical and beautiful.
Who Doesn’t Like Tailor-made Clothes?
Who doesn’t like tailor-made clothes? Custom-made garments are an excellent fit, so we searched for a way to transfer their distinctive features to a ready-made beautiful fashion range for wheelchair wear.
We wrote down all tips and wished-for adaptations and it was quite a list. At that point, the group discussions were a great succes already, because the whole idea of Chairmelotte clothes is to meet all these special requirements.
Just like our informants, we were enthousiastic about the concept, but there where quite a few problems to solve. Would the measurement of wheelchair users be different from those of walking people? How to get enough insight into the adaptations required?
Continuously Investigating Sizes, Styles and Adaptations
Dying to find out all about people’s clothing issues, we started an online inquiry using the website Chairmelotte.nl to investigate sizes, styles, and adaptations.
We asked people to send us their measurements. At the time the weather was cold and bleak, so even inside you’d be shivering to sit still in your underwear and carefully measure yourself following all those detailed instructions. Nevertheless people took the trouble, which was really touching.
Developing A Size System For Ready-made Wheelchair Wear
To get more people to tell us about their measurements, preferences and adaptations, we sought some publicity. A local newspaper devoted a page two article to Chairmelotte and a regional weekly placed an interview.
On a Saturday morning in May 2013 we were interviewed by Herman Nijholt of local radio station Boschtion Radio in the city of Den Bosch.
The radio interview at once prompted a host of responses to our inquiry. We also got a lot of fan mail. Plus a number of requests for creating menswear as well. We were surprised about so much enthousiasm while we couldn’t even show anything yet! But all this information about measurements meant that we could really get to work. Now we were able to draw up our own table of sizes.
At last we could start doing what we like best: designing.
We Had Great Fun Experimenting
The first design sketches were converted into patterns. Fabrics were chosen, matching haberdashery items selected. Then the first prototypes were ready to be sewn up. It was a matter of getting things to fit in all possible senses. A group of women of various ages and sizes volunteered as fitting models. Trying on, trying out and trying again.
The fitting was exciting. Would that skirt be a good fit? Could you sit comfortably in it all day long? We had great fun turning this way and that. Sometimes a leg or an arm refused to be cooperative, so we found a way to solve that too. Meanwhile some very special conversations happened.
‘Some ladies wore our skirt for days on end and wouldn’t even change out of it then’
We made sure that all garments were not just tried on but also extensively worn and tested. Some ladies wore our skirt for days on end and didn’t even like to change out of it after that. That’s how we developed a cut specially fitted to the sitting position.
Soon afterwards Chairmelotte ran an information stand at the Dutch Wheelchair Dancing Championships. With some pride we showed our prototypes and test garments to the public.
Rolling Role Models
A small number of people responded to our appeal for Chairmelotte models. They believe, as we do, that featuring on our website in your wheelchair doesn’t just make you a rolling model but a role model as well.
In addition to being a model, our male model turned out to be a photographer. And that’s how it came about that the atmosperic photos on our website were taken by a sitting photographer.
The first pieces of our opening collection are finished. We’ve greatly enjoyed the past hard-working year of setting up Chairmelotte. We hope some of the joy we’ve put into creating our clothes may pass on to you every time you wear them.