Meet FFORA: The Brand Redefining Accessible Fashion

Founded by Parsons School of Design graduate Lucy Jones in 2017, FFORA is an exceptional story of how a fashion label catering to an incredibly specific customer can succeed in our digital-first world. Gregk Foley caught up with Jones to learn more.

As an industry that’s expected to revolutionize itself four times a year, fashion is no stranger to change. That being said, some transformations are more significant than others. In the past decade, the fashion industry has undergone a number of transformations underpinned by two central narratives; the rise of eCommerce and online shopping, and a series of discussions surrounding identity, representation, access[ibility] and visibility that have seen long-held notions about whom precisely fashion is ‘for’ being gradually and welcomely dismantled.

And, as one might expect, these narratives have been accompanied by attendant success stories of brands who have mastered the art of selling premium goods to online audiences, or worked to push the conversation about representation in fashion in new directions. And while the overall picture these stories paint is largely positive, there continues to be a significant gap when it comes to people who have disabilities or have non-normative bodies. Such stories do exist, however, and they offer compelling case studies in how brands can succeed by catering to a niche customer base, even amidst the predominant ‘all things for all people’ rationale of online commerce. 

One such example is FFORA, a fashion accessories brand from New York that creates simple, stylish accessories for people with physical disabilities, such as wheelchair users and people with motor disorders. Founded by Parsons School of Design graduate Lucy Jones in 2017, FFORA is an exceptional story of how a fashion label catering to an incredibly specific and particular customer can succeed in the online world.

When it comes to discussions surrounding disability in fashion, the narrative follows a familiar template about people who have disabilities ‘entering’ the fashion frame. While this narrative might be accurate on its face, it runs the risk of reproducing an earlier assumption that disability and fashion were previously justifiably incompatible. The story sounds slightly different when told by someone on the ground such as Jones. 

“It’s a frustrating separation,” she explains, “that disabled people  have been historically treated as one camp, separate from non-disabled people. Over the years, people have catered to the disabled demographic as a group of people with problems that need to be solved. As a result, there’s been a huge missed opportunity to actually understand the world of disability and mobility culture on its own terms.”

Jones argues that this latter, overlooked approach unlocks a creative process that, while disability-led, ultimately creates solutions that are adaptable for non-disabled people, stimulating dialogue and an understanding of shared needs between two groups seen as historically separate.

“The disabled community has always been in fashion. That’s the story our community is showing us, and we know how to tell that story because we listen. We’ve grown in a very grassroots, word-of-mouth way, which is emblematic of streetwear and hype culture. It’s difficult to even talk about the popular narrative about disability in fashion because our own story tells us something completely different.”

The disabled community has always been in fashion. That’s the story our community is showing us, and we know how to tell that story because we listen.”

At the core of FFORA’s business is their Attachment System – a small, metal ring which can be attached to over 180 different models of manual wheelchair. Using the Attachment System’s ‘pop-in, pop-out’ element, customers can add a range of attachments to their chair including purses, cupholders and coffee cups. Available in a range of stylish colors including Champagne, Nickel and Midnight, the brand’s appeal is rooted in two simple, but tellingly overlooked ideas; that people who have disabilities need, and like, simple, functional solutions to everyday issues, and express themselves through the things they wear and the products they use.

“Disabled people are natural problem solvers. They’re the innovators of our society, the life hackers. So for anyone to approach the disability community with the attitude of solving problems for them would be disingenuous,” Jones explains. “We meet people where they are and say, we’ve got these pieces and products that you can put on your chair, on your own terms, and use in a way that best suits your style and personality.”

And yet, what sounds so novel an approach in the context of disabilities, is in fact the secret behind many of the world’s biggest brands today, as Jones explains. 

« There are so many brands that have a diverse customer base, different ages, ethnicities, sexes, genders, and the thing they all have in common is their shared sense of creativity, play, this sense of enjoyment. So we knew that if we were going to adequately meet the needs of one of the most diverse and specific groups in the world, we had to embrace that open-ended, creative platform. So when Joonas, my colleague walked in with the little pebble-sized prototype that became our Attachment System, and we just flicked it in and out, we were like, ‘Wow. Yeah. We’ve got something here.’”

We meet people where they are and say, we’ve got these pieces and products that you can put on your chair, on your own terms, and use in a way that best suits your style and personality.”

In just a few short years, FFORA has undergone an impressive rise in both fashion and mobility, in the process reconnecting two worlds that arguably should never have been separate to begin with. That notion of connection has been crucial to FFORA’s rise, whether in the form of word-of-mouth marketing, chance encounters between disabled and non-disabled audiences alike, or the satisfaction of responding to a specific customer and reassuring them that, yes, this product is compatible with the piece of equipment they use every day of their life.

“When it comes to growing our business, it would be so obvious to start slapping our product on bicycles, scooters, push chairs, and whatever else. But for me, as a designer who is not disabled, or as a standing person, I want to remain true to our customer. At the same time, we position our products both on mobility devices, and being used by walking people.”

“So, of course, word-of-mouth and personal connection have been fundamental to growing our business, but we’ve also had what you might call ‘solidarity sales’; people who see our product and want to support a business like ours. Maybe they’ll buy one for a friend, a relative, or someone they know.

It got to the point where we stopped doing digital marketing entirely, because we realized our most vital resource was simply people seeing our product in action, understanding how it works, and realizing how useful it could be in their own lives. And that’s something that really solidifies our credibility as not just a utility or mobility brand, but as a fashion brand: We have a product that is desirable – people want it – and it’s therefore fashionable, and it’s the utility itself which makes it desirable.”

And even though eCommerce is a world away from the sales models of previous eras, both FFORA’s in-person sales at trade shows and their online sales have been underpinned by that magical encounter of seeing how the product works.

“Trade shows have been phenomenal for us, to have that chance to demo your product live, because of scepticism; people don’t want to try a product in case it doesn’t work for them, or because they don’t believe that it will work for them, because they’ve been marketed to and paid so much for products like these in the past, only to find that they don’t fit. So to have an environment where you can put the product on someone’s chair, let them wheel around with it, and have fun, has been amazing.

It really opened my eyes to the power of the live demonstration. I used to look at things like shopping channels and wonder if I could ever do that, but now, anything like that – the chance to do a live demo, talk through the product, explain it in detail – it’s perfect for our business model.”

Ultimately, FFORA’s success seems to be rooted in an understanding that however particular an individual’s disability might be, the person themselves is not, and nor are the solutions they’re looking for. And rather than treating product design for people who have disabilities as a process of ‘scaling down’ existing products designed for non-disabled people (a process which is always inherently reductive), FFORA begins from an ethos of creating solutions for people who have disabilities at the outset, but that ultimately work for a much wider range of customers. Whether you’re talking about the product, the marketing, the platform or the sales pitch, it all traces back to people, connection, and interaction.

“There’s a wide range in the vocabulary people use in the disabled community, and how people speak about identity, disabilities and their disability in particular, so I’m always sensitive to that. But I’ve found that a lot of the people we work with have names for their wheelchairs, or they view their chair as an extension of themselves. And in an ideal world, that’s what I want people to take away from our products.

These products, like fashion, are an extension of yourself, and how you portray yourself to the world. They’re something far beyond tools that just make your life easier. One of the things I’ve found most interesting when I meet our customers out in the world is when they refer to the product as ‘My FFORA’. I’ll overhear someone ask, ‘Where do you position your FFORA?’ or ‘How do you use your FFORA?’ I mean, this is the stuff dreams are made of, right?”

Another unintended side-effect of Jones’ approach is that, in designing with a specific customer in mind, FFORA has ironically created a product range which highlights the commonalities between people of all backgrounds when it comes to our desire to find solutions to the day-to-day problems we face, and to express ourselves fully however we can. Put in that light, it’s a refreshing departure from fashion’s typical reputation as a culture founded on dividing people along tribal and sartorial lines.

“There’s a wide range in the vocabulary people use in the disabled community, and how people speak about identity, disabilities and their disability in particular, so I’m always sensitive to that. But I’ve found that a lot of the people we work with have names for their wheelchairs, or they view their chair as an extension of themselves. And in an ideal world, that’s what I want people to take away from our products.

These products, like fashion, are an extension of yourself, and how you portray yourself to the world. They’re something far beyond tools that just make your life easier. One of the things I’ve found most interesting when I meet our customers out in the world is when they refer to the product as ‘My FFORA’. I’ll overhear someone ask, ‘Where do you position your FFORA?’ or ‘How do you use your FFORA?’ I mean, this is the stuff dreams are made of, right?”

Another unintended side-effect of Jones’ approach is that, in designing with a specific customer in mind, FFORA has ironically created a product range which highlights the commonalities between people of all backgrounds when it comes to our desire to find solutions to the day-to-day problems we face, and to express ourselves fully however we can. Put in that light, it’s a refreshing departure from fashion’s typical reputation as a culture founded on dividing people along tribal and sartorial lines.

These products, like fashion, are an extension of yourself, and how you portray yourself to the world.”

“A lot of people have misconceptions about disability – they might say, you know, that it’s incredibly immobile, stationary, utilitarian, or whatever. What an extension like this does is it acts as an intermediary between two worlds, and the contradictions or tensions between them.

I remember this wonderful story from a friend who had her FFORA attached to her chair, and she was waiting to pay for something in a store, and just swiftly moved the product, removed her wallet, switched it for a cup holder and popped her coffee cup in, and all these women in the line crowded round and said, ‘What the hell just happened?’ Like they’d just witnessed black magic. She had unintentionally done a demo for the whole line.”

“She said to me, ‘This was the first time that people have approached me, or that non-disabled people have approached me about my wheelchair, as something that was cool, and not as something to fear.’”

“That was another one of those moments where I thought, yeah, we’re doing something here. I’m gonna keep going.”