Louisa Summerfield’s background is in business and she worked as a Business Consultant Solicitor up until 2007. She gave up this job when she wanted to pursue her passion in fashion design, bringing practical yet beautiful garments to disabled women through her company Wheeliechix-Chic.
Rianna Davis, Moving up Intern at Muscular Dystrophy UK, spoke to Louisa about her life and career.
How does your disability affect your daily life?
I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis from the early age of 9 years old. It is a very painful and aggressive illness, affecting every joint in my body. It has caused deformities and I have already had hip and knee replacements. This means I need full time care and support. I was later diagnosed with cancer.
What inspired you to go into the fashion industry?
I have always loved fashion. We have a wide range of fashion available to us such as maternity wear, petite wear and plus size wear, the list goes on. Yet adapted clothing for disabled people is a big gap in the market, even though there is a big need for it.
Have you faced barriers due to your disability and what were the solutions?
The biggest barrier I faced was travel. I wasn’t driving when I began working in law after studying, so my carer would have to drive. We faced the problem of a lack of parking spaces, even with the blue badge. Public transport in the area was not accessible and the black cabs were too expensive. The solution we had was for my carer to drop me off at work, come back when I needed care, and then leave. Once the work day was over she would then return to pick me up.
My first instinct after this was to work from home and avoid the travel problem altogether. So I went into business consultancy. This suited me better as it can take me an hour to get ready in the mornings and I am dependent on the carer being on time and following a routine. Working from home also made it easier to factor in family time, including my children.
What do you make of the gap in adapted clothing in fashion design? Do you think the industry has become more aware of disability or still more focused on catwalks/runways?
In 2007 I approached London Fashion Week with my collection and asked to be part of the event. They were not interested in the concept and refused. I was determined not to give up and funded my own fashion show. A journalist from BBC World News and the Metro turned up to see it. I was able to promote my business this way.
Now you see disability come up in fashion news every few years, reported as if it is something new. They use these disabled models as if they are a token for the company, rather than focus on the needs of disabled people as a consumer. Although it is brilliant that more people with disabilities are now able to model without judgement, it still feels like many companies approach this idea just to be able to pat themselves on the back for being diverse. If you look carefully they tend to use the same disabled models as well, rather than take on new ones.
Do you have any role models?
I don’t have specific role models, but there are designers I have followed because of their trends. I love punk so Vivienne Westwood is a designer I have liked for years. On the other hand I also like the more classical clothes in fashion too, so Chanel is another fashion brand I enjoy.
Over the years working on my fashion design company I have had the opportunity to meet some amazing people like models Sophie Morgan and Samantha Bullock. Another lovely person I have met is model Jordan Bone. When I met her she was 17 and had only been a paraplegic for two years at the time. Modelling in my fashion show was her first modelling job.
Do you ever want to give up and quit?
There have been numerous times when I have wanted to give up, yes. I couldn’t give Wheeliechix-Chic my full attention for a long time when I got diagnosed with cancer. After taking time out for myself, I have come back fighting this year trying to kick it off again.
What advice do you have for young disabled people interested in a career in fashion?
I think at the moment it is better to work in the fashion industry. If you wish to set up your own fashion business, you will need a lot of money behind you. It took me a year to sort everything before launch.
When setting up my business my background was law and business, never fashion. The skills I had already learnt from previous studies in these two areas helped me. If you need someone to design for you it does not have to be a top designer. Someone just needs to get the idea down on paper and you send it off to be made. You can even take it on yourself, communication is key. You must learn to be tough and not sensitive, especially when it comes to critiques. Be yourself. The biggest fear to face when disabled is thinking you are not good enough. You must learn confidence before you even enter the door and go through. You must know you are worth it and deserve this. There are some resources out there to help with your fashion. I follow the London fashion trends mainly. Fashion works by showing you a season ahead, but fashion also recycles trends. I also follow Vogue as they release colour palettes for the year ahead. It all comes down to knowing your target consumer, learning what sells and choosing popular trends. Keeping up with this will help sales if you choose a small area like adapted clothing.