The contrast between Mindy Scheier’s $4,200 designer gown and the conventional pieces from retailers such as JCPenney, Kohl’s, and Zappos that were adapted to clothe her disabled models was on display at her New York Fashion Week–adjacent “A Fashion Revolution” runway show. In its eighth year, “A Fashion Revolution” began as a gala to showcase Runway of Dreams, the charity she founded in 2014 to be the preeminent design house for what’s known as adaptive apparel.
Runway of Dreams was conceived as a “nonprofit organization working with the fashion industry to adapt mainstream clothing for the differently-abled community.” Scheier, who is not disabled herself, realized her desire to lead the fashion revolution after her disabled child described wanting to dress independently, like other kids at school. She has since partnered with a plethora of corporations, including Victoria’s Secret, Adidas, and Target (which is notably facing a class action lawsuit for a failure to make its website accessible), to incorporate “adaptive” features in their existing products, such as Velcro and zippers to make them easier to don and doff or flattened seams for sensory needs.
As her brand has grown, so too have Scheier’s lofty ambitions, which began with plans “to create an army of Runway of Dreams ambassadors” and “become the authority” of adaptive design. It’s a level of ambition that’s met only by Scheier’s own self-mythologizing. She describes herself as the “pioneer behind the inclusive fashion movement” and compares herself to Joan of Arc—insisting she was the one to “introduce the population of people with disabilities as consumers,” as though the only thing that was missing for disabled people was an abled savior who could translate our exclusion from public life into the jargon of corporate fashion.
Because nondiscerning audiences are dazzled by the simplicity of the adaptive alterations Scheier sells and promotes, it’s rare that anyone probes her claims of having been the pioneering force behind this apparel movement. Scratch the surface, however, and her origin story looks a lot less pristine, a trail of purloined innovations and forgotten creators dotting the road to the revolution and forcing the question: What if the Runway of Dreams is merely a runway of smoke and mirrors?
In 2016, Scheier caught a huge break when Tommy Hilfiger agreed to partner with Runway of Dreams to launch a 22-piece adaptive fashion line “for all,” altering the storied brand’s iconic red, white, and business casual clothes to “make dressing easier” for disabled children. During the press tour, Scheier cited the “nearly invisible magnetic closures by MagnaReady” as being an integral feature of these adaptive garments.
MagnaReady is the brainchild of Maura Horton, a former children’s clothing designer. In 2009, with her husband’s hands growing less dexterous due to Parkinson’s disease, Horton decided to replace his shirt buttons with magnets. Realizing the teeming possibilities of these magnetic closures, Horton patented the technology and by 2016 had signed off on a licensing deal with PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger. This was how Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive came to list the “Patented MagnaReady® magnet” in the descriptions of products that contained magnetic buttons.
After the launch of Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive, something shifted, and Scheier’s recognition of Horton as the person who “patented a special magnetic closure for modified clothing” came to an end. When 2020 rolled around, Scheier took credit for Horton’s design during an interview for the dissertation of Dr. Kerri McBee-Black, assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s Textile and Apparel Management Department. In that paper, Scheier “described purchasing magnets to replace zippers” and “figuring it [how to incorporate the magnets into the garments] out.”
It is a notably different origin story from Scheier’s 2017 Tommy Hilfiger–sponsored TED Talk, in which she self-deprecatingly described applying peel-and-stick Velcro to her child’s jeans so that they would close around a pair of leg braces. These varying narratives suggest a willingness to distort the truth as the situation dictates, in the service of perpetuating the pleasing myths knit up in her brand’s origin story. Sheier can be an unskilled Everymom in one moment, a technical design prodigy in the next.
In a McBee-Black research paper that was published nine months after her dissertation, Scheier provided renderings and photographs of a magnetic button technology that bore a striking resemblance to images contained in Horton’s patent. McBee-Black described them as “design features [that] were borrowed from Scheier’s research and adaptive design innovations.”
It seems that Horton may have suffered real material consequences as a result of Scheier’s use of Horton’s patented magnetic closure concept, because the Tommy Hilfiger website descriptions now reference generic magnetic closures, while MagnaReady is nowhere to be found.
Naturally, there is no surprise in Scheier’s use of Velcro. For anyone trying to make clothing more accessible, it’s an obvious choice. In 1941, the year Velcro was invented, disabled designer Helen Cookman was tasked with developing accessible clothing during her residency at the Institute for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at New York University. As historian Natalie Wright has documented, between 1962 and 1975, Cookman collaborated with renowned fashion designers such as Vera Maxwell and Pauline Trigere, as well as over a dozen major brands, including Levi’s and Lacoste, to incorporate accessible features into their clothing lines, over a half-century before Scheier crowned her Tommy Hilfiger collaboration “the first mainstream adaptive collection.”
It is unlikely that a 1959 Velcro-hosted fashion show would have featured “an individual who was disabled as a result of polio model[ing] Velcro fasteners” without Cookman’s influence, Wright noted. Yet this is not the disability history Velcro chooses to share on its “Timeline of Innovation.” As it happens, disability doesn’t get mentioned until 2022, when Velcro celebrates its “contributing sponsorship of the Runway of Dreams Adaptive Apparel Fashion Show during New York’s Fashion week.”
Scheier has incredibly been incorporated into Velcro’s “Original Thinking“ branding, a designation for individuals who purport to innovate with Velcro’s hook and loop fasteners, while also becoming the originator of the magnetic-button technology that directly competes with Velcro.
It raises the question whether someone so seemingly prolific in closure technologies may be adept at closing doors as well. If Scheier is unwilling to differentiate a patented idea from her own, how can vulnerable disabled people trust that their knowledge and ideas won’t also become hers?
In 2019, Scheier expanded her portfolio by founding Gamut, a for-profit talent management agency that situated Runway of Dreams as its “exclusive nonprofit partner.” Gamut’s stated mission is to “help companies find authentic ways to engage with, create products for and represent people with disabilities,” thus allowing firms that have no experience with disability to explore the uncharted frontier of the disabled consumer.
According to Scheier, “Victoria’s Secret decided to start working in partnership with Gamut Management because they didn’t know who the consumer with a disability was.” Gamut claims it connected Victoria’s Secret executives with “approximately 200 women with disabilities [who] were involved in the process through fit tests, focus groups, store visits, and wear tests,” something that Victoria’s Secret chief diversity officer Lydia Smith described as “working with women with disabilities to get feedback.”
For a disabled consultant, this is a common refrain: We’re told we are being brought in for our knowledge, then our expertise is diminished as mere feedback. But to be successful at our work, disabled consultants must develop a complex skill set: learning an industry trade, rooting our own personal experience of disability in disabled histories, and navigating steep power imbalances, such as the ones that were at play during Runway of Dreams’ collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger.
According to a Harvard Business School case study of Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive, “People with disabilities were not just observers in this process; they were invited to be part of the process, helping to beta test products and joining innovation workshops to develop new product designs.” The lack of specifics about how under-resourced disabled contributors were credited, compensated, and valued shows how workshops and focus groups are staged to extract insights that will then be sold back to their originators as benevolent innovation.
According to a Gamut press release, “Agron adidas Accessories enlisted
GAMUT as its partner to ensure that every step of the process involved people with disabilities,” and “every detail from how the [Adidas Adaptive backpack] stands up, to the over-sized trims to the way the pack fits on bodies with varying abilities or chairs is a product of consumer insights.” It is a refrain that Scheier has repeated; that “everything comes from the population.” But if everything is flowing forth from disabled people, it makes one wonder what, exactly, Scheier is bringing to the table herself.
In 2022, Gamut announced a seal of approval, “to signify authenticity and inclusion of PWDs in the development and marketing of Adaptive products,” which was “created based on feedback from members of the population.” The mark was featured in a glowing Forbes write-up that detailed how it would provide “a level of accountability that is fundamental.” The article was written by Jonathan Kaufman, one of four core Gamut members tasked with developing criteria for eligible products. Kaufman, a former policy adviser to the Obama White House, was Gamut’s chief strategy officer, a role he did not disclose to Forbes.
A pitch deck for the Gamut Seal of Approval provided to the authors of this piece includes a quote from Kaufman’s Forbes article, in which he claims, “The GAMUT Seal of Approval is the next evolution in codifying how to truly define what it means for a product to be called Adaptive.” Gamut attributes the quote not to Kaufman but to Forbes (which has since removed Kaufman as a contributor for failing to disclose his conflict of interest).
To date, only two companies have received the Gamut Seal of Approval—and their relationships to Gamut and Runway of Dreams call into question the impartiality of this supposedly “rigorous” designation and its third-party evaluation process. Gamut awarded its first Seal of Approval to Adidas for the aforementioned adaptive backpack. According to Laura Jenks, president of Agron Adidas Accessories, Gamut worked “by [its] side to authentically develop products by including and listening to people with disabilities throughout the process.” Scheier said, “Adidas were so diligent in the process that they very easily met all the criteria to be certified.” Neither statement mentioned Adidas’s role as an “organization operation and program underwriter” and corporate partner for the Runway of Dreams Foundation.
Victoria’s Secret, which Runway of Dreams describes as “a valued partner to the Runway of Dreams Foundation,” is the other company to receive a Gamut Seal of Approval. Not long after Scheier, according to Vogue, “connected with Victoria’s Secret by inviting its executives to a [Runway of Dreams] fashion show last year,” in which the company was also listed as a sponsor, she announced a Gamut collaboration with Victoria’s Secret on Good Morning America.
The announcement was featured in a case study written by Dr. Kerri McBee-Black, who wrote that “they [Gamut Management] have begun to work with Victoria’s Secret to understand the needs of customers with disabilities and explore ways to meet the needs of PWDs.” In a way that mirrors Kaufman’s deception, “they” should have actually been “we,” because McBee-Black is, and was at the time, the chief research officer consultant for Gamut Management.
It is noteworthy how often Gamut representatives have abused their platforms to legitimize their accrediting body. During Disability Pride Month, the Council for Fashion Designers of America partnered with “Gamut Management on a conversation around accessibility and how brands, production companies and event teams can take their first steps to making NYFW accessible both backstage and front of house.” Gamut framed the nature of this engagement differently, describing the conversation as the “first event under this partnership.”
When asked to clarify, CFDA CEO Steven Kolb said, “It was in reference to the specific conversation we hosted together. We have worked with Mindy in the past, and we are supportive of her work and will continue to support her. It’s not a formal partnership or program.” The CFDA may want to consider rerouting its support of Scheier to the multiply marginalized disabled models, creators, and consultants who are trying to carve out careers for themselves through platforms such as Runway of Dreams.
Despite Runway of Dreams’ stated mission to “provide people with disabilities … opportunity, inclusion, and acceptance in the fashion industry,” information about the work of Scheier’s disabled models and collaborators is not readily available on the Runway of Dreams or Gamut website. Instead, the Runway of Dreams website features a Where’s Mindy? page that tracks her public appearances. On the rare occasion that a model or collaborator is quoted in an interview, it is in service of Scheier’s brand, leaving the impression that interview subjects are chosen by her.
This tracks with what Paulo Freire describes in his 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “Oppressors do not favor promoting the community as a whole, but rather selected leaders.” In order to achieve their own individual “opportunity, inclusion, and acceptance in the fashion industry,” these ambassadors may come to entertain their own token representation so as not to be banished by the authority figure at the helm.
The 2023 Runway of Dreams fashion show featured a deaf model who described the hood of his adaptive sweatshirt as the feature that met his disabled needs, because “I can’t get my (hearing aids) wet. If it’s raining, I have to be able to put my hood on.” But a hood is not an adaptive feature, even if a disabled person is wearing it. It is simply a hood. The corporate structures of adaptive design often pressure disabled people to provide a tangible problem for designers to solve in order to get a seat at the table. When a program or project relies on the extraction of value from its under-resourced subjects, it will undoubtedly dabble in alternative tactics to sustain its expansion. This is how common apparel features became a target for “adaptive” appropriation.
Runway of Dreams’ casting call “to spotlight small business Adaptive Apparel brands at our 2022 LA Fashion Revolution!” revealed another such tactic. The runway show was formatted around Runway of Dreams’ corporate sponsors, making it difficult to determine which looks came from the small brands (many of whom were listed as sponsors) that were being spotlighted. During the JCPenney segment, Runway of Dreams named four adaptive brands that the retailer carries, but there were five brands being shown. Nobody in attendance would have known that the crop top and matching joggers came from Slick Chicks, because they were not named during the show or in any corresponding press.
It is worth considering why Runway of Dreams showed this particular look, because while Slick Chicks’ offerings have grown, their original product was adaptive underwear. If Scheier was contractually bound by JCPenney to showcase each of its adaptive brands, was her priority to erase Slick Chicks by failing to name them, or was it to rebrand them as a more generic adaptive apparel company in order to establish market dominance when Gamut announced its Victoria’s Secret collaboration less than three weeks later?
If corporations truly desire an inclusive product market, they could invest in collaborations with existing brands, many of which are disabled-led, such as Bibipins, Rebirth Garments, and Neo-Walk. When corporations choose instead to partner with hyped-up firms like Gamut, what they get is an optics mill with no substance and no lasting impact. There is no evidence that products derived from the corporate adaptive (or inclusive) design processes that have been systematized by Scheier and her ilk have succeeded beyond their hype. When Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the chief accessibility officer for Microsoft, was asked about the profitability of their suite of accessible products, “her friendly countenance melts away, and her jaw juts out in advertised disgust.”
“We don’t do this for [return on investment],” she said. “And I will just say, the question comes up, candidly, a little too much.” About five months later, Microsoft discontinued most of its ergonomic keyboards. When asked about sales projections for Victoria’s Secret’s adaptive line, chief diversity officer Lydia Smith, like Lay-Flurrie, “declined to share the company’s sales projections,” according to Vogue. If adaptive sales aren’t a viable goal for corporations, then why are they doing this?
In 2020, as Victoria’s Secret was working to correct precipitous sales declines that led to store closures and a stock drop of more than 75 percent from its 2015 peak, a New York Times investigation revealed an entrenched culture of misogyny, bullying, and harassment at the company.
“Shares reached an all-time low in September, down 78 percent from 2021,” Bloomberg reported. Similarly, Adidas was already combating diminished relevance when it terminated its relationship with rapper Kanye “Ye” West in 2022 for, among other things, making his antisemitism known to the wider world. This year, Adidas is expecting to see sales drop by $2 billion, with “more shoes to drop,” creating a starker situation than its 2023 financial guidance had anticipated. Scheier hasn’t just exploited disabled people, she has also found ways to capitalize on the vulnerabilities of previously formidable corporations that have found themselves in crisis.
The emotional resonances elicited when brands announce the advent of adaptive products have long served as a smokescreen for unproven claims. It doesn’t matter if the products ultimately sell or if the corporation commits to a consistent investment in serving disabled creators or customers—the positive exposure from the announcement itself is expected to recoup the development costs. But Scheier’s abled tutelage of adaptive apparel mirrors rather than addresses a gendered “pattern at Victoria’s Secret, where a woman brand head has reported to a man who actually held the power,” Bloomberg reported. “One former executive described Victoria’s Secret as a brand built and developed by men, carried and supported on the backs of women.”
Scheier has unfortunately capitulated to one of those men by shifting her position on the Israeli genocide of Palestinians on the eve of the Victoria’s Secret Adaptive launch, and mere hours after Les Wexner, the billionaire founder of Victoria’s Secret, cut ties with Harvard, citing “the dismal failure of Harvard’s leadership to take a clear and unequivocal stand against the barbaric murders of innocent Israeli civilians by terrorists.” Four days after Gamut issued a statement expressing heartbreak about “the horrific events in Israel and Gaza,” Runway of Dreams omitted Gaza from its statement and instead repeated Wexner’s language about “the barbaric terrorist attacks against the people of Israel.” If Joan of Adaptive is willing to release statements of solidarity and condolence but not willing to be consistent in the face of consequences to clout and capital, then who exactly is she advocating for?
Mindy Scheier’s own brand of “adaptive” recalls the late Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: “a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.” “Adaptive” has been transformed into an empty signifier; one that has permitted a self-appointed, singular authority to simply steal a patented technology for herself, erase her forebears, and extract whole bodies of knowledge from the marginalized people she is celebrated for accommodating.
This is a profound level of plunder. And it serves to show that authentic and sustainable accessible apparel can only come from disabled creators who are celebrated and resourced, rather than used to resource the ascension of their colonizer. “Adaptive” design will evolve as other corporate methodologies evolve; it will go through a rebrand to avoid addressing the ways in which it has preyed on the so-called “population” it purports to be serving. But there is a bright path available to a better future: By tapping into the energy of our current labor resurgence, disabled people can compel corporations to invest in the people from whom they are currently extracting value without reciprocal reward. By rejecting the singular authority serving as a proxy for a multiplicity of perspectives, disability fashion can begin to carve its own path, one that commits to a commensurate process rather than the corporate adaptive myth.