Apparel and accessories designer Global Brands Group, which manages brands like Frye and is a Disney licensee, took its foray into the adaptive apparel market to the next level in 2020 despite the pandemic, creating JUNIPERunltd, an online marketplace for persons with disabilities that blends content, community and commerce.
JUNIPERunltd seeks to serve as a destination for consumers with a range of disabilities and their caregivers, focusing not only on fashion but on a broad array of lifestyle issues, from health and wellness to food, home décor and technology.
“We are trying to create space for people who historically have not been seen or heard, and meet them where they are,” said Sinéad Burke, editor-at-large at JUNIPERunltd and executive producer of the website’s podcast series.
We are trying to create space for people who historically have not been seen or heard, and meet them where they are.
Sinéad Burke, editor-at-large, JUNIPERunltd
Businesses wake up to an underserved market
JUNIPERunltd is not alone in courting the long underserved, multibillion-dollar adaptive market.
Across business sectors, companies are increasingly designing products and services for the 26% of the adult U.S. population living with a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Target’s Cat & Jack line, for one, includes items designed for children with high degrees of sensitivity, such as those on the autism spectrum.
Microsoft markets adaptive controllers for its Xbox to empower gamers with limited mobility, just as beauty brands like L’Occitane offer Braille packaging for the vision-impaired.
JUNIPERunltd, for its part, which launched online in September, evolved from GBG’s 2019 acquisition of MagnaReady, a company that designs and sells clothing featuring magnetic closures. Created by Maura Horton after her husband was diagnosed at an early age with Parkinson’s disease, MagnaReady seeks to provide solutions for people who may have difficulty dressing and undressing.
Rick Darling, CEO of GBG, said retailers had expressed strong interest in offering MagnaReady products online, which led GBG to begin offering the products itself directly to consumers.
“Living with a disability doesn’t change your needs and desires to live comfortably and create your own style. Feeling good about yourself is paramount to all,” Darling said.
Horton, who invented the MagnaReady technology and is now chief community officer at JUNIPERunltd, said GBG offered its full support of the creation of the marketplace, despite the pandemic.
“GBG could have stepped away from the project, but Rick doubled down and said, ‘This is super important,’” she said.
Filling market voids with a designer/community feedback loop
Horton describes her job as bridging the gaps between the communities that JUNIPERunltd seeks to serve, since there are so many differences among persons with disabilities.
“I try to tie them all together, so we can create products for our communities based on a feedback loop that we have opened,” she said. “We are actively asking the community what they are looking for, what their needs are and what the voids are, and we bring that back to the designers to develop new products and new categories.”
Caregivers for persons with disabilities account for 40% of purchases for the adaptive products market, so JUNIPERunltd is aiming to appeal to that audience as well. Elderly people with limited mobility and dexterity are also an important audience.
Horton is also working with universities and other educational institutions to encourage consideration of persons with disabilities among young designers, so that they begin thinking about design “through an adaptive or universal lens,” she said.
“We want everyone to think about it when they are creating products, so that it’s not an afterthought,” Horton said.
Commitment to diversity and inclusion
Creating a marketplace for persons with disabilities fit with GBG’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, said Randi Nolan, executive vice president of global transformation at GBG.
“So many companies are having conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion, and I am super proud to be working for a company like Global Brands Group that isn’t just talking about diversity, equity and inclusion but is really making an investment in making a difference,” she said.
GBG wanted JUNIPERunltd to be a unique marketplace — one that not only offered well-designed product, but one that created community with rich content, Nolan explained.
“The focus has been around being a place that uplifts the voice of the community,” she said. “We wanted to make sure it was a place where people can go to get information that is helpful and makes them feel included.”
Burke, who herself has dwarfism and has long been an advocate for persons with disabilities, said the content at JUNIPERunltd is also evolving. Beginning this year, content will focus on monthly themes, beginning with the theme of “hope” in January.
Burke is also seeking to work through issues around the language used to describe persons with disabilities.
“Do we say ‘people with disabilities’? What happens to ‘differently abled’? What happens to ‘special needs’? What’s the Juniper voice?” she said. “Language is political because it is personal, and it is individual, and we need to create space for all of that.”
The website curates articles from a variety of sources and also seeks original content from contributors. Some recent topics have included articles on sign language from around the world, how to celebrate the holidays on Zoom and tips for cooking from a wheelchair. The retail component includes carefully vetted offerings from more than 20 different vendors.
GBG is also creating new brands to offer on the retail side of the site, including the recently launched Yarrow, a women’s sportswear line, and another new brand of activewear is also in the works. The company is also considering expanding by licensing the MagnaReady technology to other vendors.
Darling said JUNIPERunltd appears to have some momentum, but the team is being careful not to force its growth.
“We have to let it have its own momentum,” he said. “We’re not pressing it because we have a business plan that we have to meet.”
Darling said the focus on the initiative has been to create an authentic experience for users of the marketplace, which means not only getting persons with disabilities involved as contributors, but also making sure that products are designed and tested with input from persons with disabilities.
“It was really important to us that we weren’t just pandering to this market, and that we really were trying to build a place that they can believe in,” he said.
-Barbara Thau contributed to this story.
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Published January 13, 2021