Vongai Ruzive is the young designer behind the fashion brand VonRuz. What started as a university project has now evolved into a functional, inclusive fashion brand that caters to the needs of physically disbaled women.
Inclusivity is a word that has been spouted by the fashion industry over the last few years, following much-needed public criticism. This view of inclusivity generally referred to sizing, using models of different races or ethnicity or creating gender neutral garments. Disabilities have often been last to have a seat at the table. Emily Farra in an article for Vogue reported:
We apply [inclusivity] to race, gender, sexuality, age, size, and religion, but rarely to one’s abilities. In my almost-decade of fashion week reporting, I’ve never heard a designer mention how their collection might appeal to someone with limited use of their arms or how a new trouser would work for someone with a prosthetic.
It’s clear, the fashion industry still has a long way to go if it’s to really be inclusive, but designers like Vongai are paving the way. We took some time to chat with Von, who’s now based in Paris, about her vision for the brand and why functionality doesn’t mean the absence of style.
KB: Hi Von, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. First things first, can you tell our readers a bit about your inclusive fashion brand VonRuz?
VR: VonRuz is for the woman who wants to be feminine and have a little bit of an edge to her style. I consider VonRuz an inclusive [fashion brand] rather than [an adaptive one] because of the idea that you can have a garment that can fit into each category: non-disabled or disabled.
KB: A lot of designers are using the term “adaptive,” like Tommy Hilfiger for example. He launched his adaptive collection in 2017. What do you think the word “inclusive” connotes for VonRuz?
VR: For me, it’s really going against the idea of segregation. Inclusive relates to the garments, the way they’ve been designed, but also the way they’re marketed. It also becomes inclusive through diverse models. Not all of the models may have visible disabilities or some may not have disabilities at all. I want to show that it’s not just for someone who may want to use it functionally for a prosthetic arm, for example, but also for someone who may just want a slit on their sleeve.
KB: Do you think by not using the word adaptive there are restrictions for the brand?
VR: That’s a great question actually. I wouldn’t say it’s restrictive, but it definitely has made people really consider what the brand is and what it does — people often ask me if the clothing is only for those with disabilities. It’s a case of trying to get that idea of inclusivity across without trying to just market it to one of the categories, disabled and nondisabled. It’s definitely difficult, but I wouldn’t say restrictive.
KB: Where did the inspiration come from to create your inclusive range and to cater to disabled women with the clothes that you create?
VR: Whilst doing my bachelor’s degree (BA) in fashion design at Nottingham Trent University, one of our projects was to design a range of clothing catered to disabled consumers. It was actually a competition launched by a woman who had had a skiing accident and had to use a wheelchair for a number of months. When she realized that she couldn’t find any accessible clothing to suit her needs, she launched this competition. Even though I wasn’t a finalist, the challenge sparked the idea within me.
This competition was very important to me. From there I continued to work on what would be the brand, VonRuz. I wanted to find different solutions! I then started my master’s degree (MA) at the Paris College of Art. That’s where I focused more on user research. I found that a lot of disabled and nondisabled women all had common complaints, things like tights being a bit itchy, irritable tags at the back of garments or tops that were a bit scratchy. So these aren’t just issues for disabled women, so why not make something that everyone can wear?
When I look back now, the idea of designing garments for disbaled consumers was always around, I just never really paid enough attention. I grew up with two brothers who have autism. One of my brothers had a lot of problems when it came to clothing. He would not want to wear jeans — he would just rather be naked — so he wore joggers mainly which were more comfortable for him.
KB: So we’ve spoken a little bit about diversity and the models that you are using. When casting models for campaigns or shoots, are you only using disabled women and was this a deliberate choice?
VR: So for the models, they are completely diverse; not all disabled. I think it is important to showcase the different women that could potentially be wearing my garments. When I do cast disabled models, it’s also about trying to cast the different disabilities there too — those with cognitive disabilities and physical disabilities. Different disabilities have different issues that may arise when it comes to their daily lives, which then impacts how they’d use the garments.
KB: Can you talk us through one of the pieces from your latest collection, Enclusyv.
VR: I’ll definitely focus on the staple piece, the blazer. That one is my absolute baby of the collection, because I think way more time was put into it, trying to hack the normal blazer. So the normal blazer can be a little bit difficult — you can put one arm in and then when it comes to the second arm, sometimes you need to struggle that shoulder around. Now imagine for someone with lower mobility who can barely do that, they may need a carer to put it on for them.
You can actually just completely open up the blazer, all the zips from the sleeve hem all the way to the neck line, in between the collar and the lapel. Once that’s completely open, you can imagine this flat shape. When you open both sleeves, they can literally just lay flat and then their carer can just zip it up for them and they’re done.
Then there’s another version of the blazer, where it’s a double-sided zip where you can get that slit effect on the sleeve from any direction. With a double-sided zip you can start zipping from the top or the bottom. I found during the user testing that if you have a prosthetic arm for example, by putting it on with that part being zipped already down, there’s only a little piece that’s kind of hanging together, which makes it so much easier for them to zip it back down once they’re wearing it and then zip this part back up, or even leave it down, you know, for that styling of the flap, off the lapel.
When someone has the S curve spine, the elasticated waist is helpful for that. So that the blazer is a bit more fitted and also comfortable. Bearing in mind as well, where the length of the blazer finishes, someone in a wheelchair probably doesn’t want something that’s bunching up at the top, so in this case it helps in terms of that elasticated waist and the length as well stops just about where you sit down.
KB: How have you incorporated other features to make your collection functional for any customer?
VR: An elasticated waist at the center back of other garments. So not just the blazer, but also the trousers and skirts as well.
KB: Anyone can wear these garments and feel comfortable — you don’t have something digging into your belly when you’re sitting down for example.
VR: And avoiding garments riding down as well, while you’re sitting down and things like that.
KB: The fashion industry is not as inclusive as it could be. Strides have been made, but what more can the industry do to make fashion and the world surrounding it more inclusive for disabled consumers?
VR: Definitely more research. The industry should understand how to work with people with different abilities, so that they can better accommodate them, whether it is at fashion shows or photoshoots.
When it comes to brands themselves, I definitely think beyond, “oh, we just gonna add some disabled person here and call it a day.” We’ve seen that many times, when some of the brands that we know have included people with disabilities, but the clothing that they were wearing had nothing to do with inclusivity. It’s about rethinking the full scope of it rather than just “let’s just be fluffy,” and then next month they’re back at it again, like with their “normal stuff.”
KB: Do you think mainstream brands need to become more inclusive or do we need to make room for designers and brands who are already catering to this audience?
VR: When I was starting my dissertation, I was always considering the idea of walking into a mainstream store where you don’t have different sections, for example petite, plus size etc. Instead you just have a whole floor with all the garments and then each garment has different options available. So you have this one blazer and you have the different sizes, including the plus sizes. And then you also have the fact that the garment has been made inclusive of people with disabilities, without having to label it in this way. This is something that should happen later on. I think it’s quite difficult to change the existing supply chain and there are other things that bigger brands need to consider. Smaller brands for now should be given that platform. But if Tommy Hilfigger can do it, then other brands can do it too.
KB: Last question Von — how do you want women to feel wearing your clothes?
VR: Comfortable, they’re comfortable in what they’re wearing. If they’re at work for example, they don’t feel like “oh my gosh, I hope no one’s looking at what I’m wearing.” Independent as well. Instead of having those zips that you have to struggle with at the back while you’re trying to rush to go to work, they’re located in easier to reach parts of the garment. You just feel at ease putting on your clothes and taking them off. Generally when it comes to physical aesthetics, I want them to feel like “I look good” and that things are fitting the way that they should.
You can check out Von’s full collection of inclusive garments on her website: vonruz.com.