Launched in 2019, Jam The Label is one of just a few brands in Australia that offers stylish and functional clothing for people with disability. It recently ran a pop-up at The Glen shopping centre in Melbourne, and has a long-term vision to making shopping more accessible for everyone. Here, we speak to co-founders Emma Clegg and Molly Rogers about starting the business as occupational therapy students, working with the disability community and gearing up for the year ahead. Inside Retail: Can
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l: Can you tell me the story of launching Jam The Label, and about the concept of the brand? Emma Clegg: Molly and I met while studying to become occupational therapists (OT) at uni. At the time, we were working casually as disability support workers, which a lot of allied health students do. I worked weekly with a young girl called Maddie, and Molly worked with a young boy called Jack, and we always used to talk about how dressing was a real difficulty, it was really time-consuming. They were teenagers at the time, and anything that was easier or quicker to [put on] was really daggy and not something that we would want to wear. Because we were studying to be OTs, we were taught that if you can’t adapt the way a task is done, you adapt the equipment. Both Jack and Maddie have cerebral palsy. They’re full-time wheelchair users, and they’re physically reliant on others to get dressed each day. We thought, we can’t change the way they [get dressed], but we can change the equipment, which in this case was their clothes. At the time, we thought, surely we’re not the first to think of this concept, so we looked into adaptive clothing, and it did exist at the time – this was back in 2017 – but mostly in the US and Europe. What was out there in Australia was aimed towards the elderly, the really young, or it was hyper-medicalised and focused purely on functionality and not the fashion side of things. Again, we thought, we wouldn’t want to wear that kind of stuff, so why should Jack and Maddie? Molly Rogers and Emma Clegg (left to right). Source: Supplied Molly Rogers: Maddie now is 21 and Jack is 18, and that is such an important time in your life, when you’re expressing yourself and learning who you are as a person and showing the world who you are. Why should people with disability not have the same opportunity that we do to express ourselves through fashion? IR: It couldn’t have been easy to start a fashion label, coming from an OT background. What has that experience been like? EC: It’s been an extreme learning curve, and I think we’re still learning every day. We often don’t have the fashion lingo. We’re very clear on the functional side of what we want the garments to do, but explaining that to a manufacturer is quite an interesting process. One of our manufacturers sent us an email about a pair of pants we were getting made, and the subject line was ‘very unusual pants’. Our manufacturing process and development process are much longer than a lot of other fashion brands’ because we have to test the functional aspects of our clothes and make sure they not only look good, but also work and fulfil a purpose. Something as simple as the zip facing the wrong way can have an impact on how the garment works, and we have to go back to the drawing board. It can be a lengthy process, but I think we’ve become stronger and more confident in getting our message across to manufacturers. MR: It’s not only the sampling process, but also the forethought that goes into what we’re creating. We have a strong collaboration with the disability community where we get lots of feedback from people with lived experience of disability [about] the products they need. IR: Given the amount of time it takes to develop and manufacture your clothes, is that a hurdle to expanding your range? EC: I can become very impatient, so that’s been challenging on a personal level, but we love problem-solving. That is our expertise as occupational therapists – working through what’s needed and how we can provide a meaningful solution that is also stylish and trendy – so the process is enjoyable for us. It might sound like it’s harder work, and that, unfortunately, is often what puts off mainstream brands – that intimidation of working with those within the disability community and not knowing where to start – but that’s exactly why we started Jam, and that’s what we feel so strongly about. IR: That’s a very good point. I noticed that Jam the Label was picked up by The Iconic in 2021, less than two years after launching. That’s a pretty big deal. What impact has it had on the business so far? EC: That was huge. It was our first real ‘pinch-me’ moment. It gave us a lot of credibility in feeling like a real fashion brand. That was a big goal from the start, to be on The Iconic, alongside all of these other fashion brands that we’ve grown up with. We were one of three brands that launched in their adaptive edit. MR: It was a recognition that not only is our brand stylish and deserving of being on a platform like The Iconic, but that adaptive clothing should be in the mainstream spotlight, and that everyone should have access to adaptive clothing and these functional products. Jam The Label’s jackets have been designed for people who use wheelchairs, with a shorter back and sides that fully unzip. Source: Supplied IR: Another exciting milestone for Jam The Label was the launch of a pop-up at The Glen shopping centre in Melbourne before Christmas. How did that come about? MR: Up until then, we were online only, but when people had an opportunity to see our products at expos and things like that, a lot of the time they had a lightbulb moment of [understanding] this is how it works and this is high quality. That tactile experience made a real difference with our type of products. EC: However, at a lot of these events, you don’t have a change room, let alone an accessible change room. We had been in discussions with Vicinity Centres for a long time about their Parcel Concierge pilot program, so when they opened up their physical presence at The Glen, we went and had a look. Just by chance, they had a pre-existing change room at the site, and as soon as Molly and I looked at it, we said, ‘That’s wider than a standard door frame. That will fit most powered wheelchairs.’ We thought it was a great opportunity for our customers to be able to try the products on, and Vicinity was really great to work with. They suggested we have a pop-up store. MR: We refer to ourselves as inclusive fashion, rather than adaptive, because we want everyone to be able to enjoy Jam, and we don’t want to segregate the disability community. We really saw that at the pop-up. We had lots of people who were non-disabled coming through and loving our bamboo tops, which are soft and stretchy. So many people felt them and were like, ‘I want one of these,’ without even realising they were accessible. And then we would explain who we are and what we’re doing, and bring them into the Jam community, which was cool, because anyone can wear our products. It was nice to see that come to fruition with the pop-up. EC: We’re very aware of how inaccessible the retail experience can be for people with disability. It was great to be able to have that conversation and spark those thoughts with people who aren’t aware of that struggle. That week showed us how important it is and why we want to keep striving to provide those opportunities, because it just doesn’t exist at the moment. MR: I still work with Jack on the weekend, and we’ll often go to shopping centres and try to squeeze a wheelchair through these tight areas trying to find clothing. It’s just such an inaccessible experience, and you feel like a real nuisance. It’s such an othering process. EC: The other thing we talk about is the interaction between staff members in a store and a person with disability. It’s often awkward. The staff member hasn’t been educated on how to interact with a person with disability. If you’re a person with disability, and you’re having all these negative experiences in a shop or in a shopping centre, why would you want to return? IR: It can be hard for brands to gain the trust of underserved communities, especially if other brands have let them down in the past. It can lead to scepticism, and high expectations. What does that look like in the disability community, and how do you navigate it? MR: It goes in two ways. People are extremely grateful that there’s something for them. We saw that at the start. But we are a small business, and we can’t offer every single option that every single person wants. We’ve had people want quite specific things, or a wide range of options, and we can’t offer that just yet. EC: Where people within the disability community have been burned before is with tokenism. A lot of brands say, ‘We’re being inclusive, we’re being accessible,’ but they’re just ticking a box with representation or marketing, and they’re not actually consulting with the community on what they need. Another aspect is affordability and cost. A lot of people create products for the disability community, and because it’s seen as specialised, they add three zeros to it. That’s the first piece of feedback for brands that try to do adaptive clothing – have you thought about the unemployment rate for people with disability? Have you thought about their disposable income? How much would they be willing to pay for that product if they could go to a mainstream shop and buy something very similar? That’s where we prioritise consulting with the community to ensure what we’re creating is not tokenistic. It’s authentic, meaningful and purposeful, but it’s also at a cost that they would be prepared to pay. IR: How do you communicate with the community? MR: We’ve got a suggestions page on our website, and lots of people access that. We’re also very active in our direct messages. And for our last two ranges, we’ve organised a design consultation committee, where we’ve had people with a range of lived experiences come in, and we’ve discussed their dressing needs and what sort of products they’re looking for, which has been a paid opportunity for them. People are expected to give their lived experience for free – like, ‘You should be grateful that I’m doing this for you, so you’ve got to do this for me.’ IR: What’s next for you in terms of bricks-and-mortar? EC: We’re hoping to launch distribution through the Parcel Concierge system with Vicinity Centres in the first half of 2023. That will allow customers who are located – at this point – in Melbourne to click-and-collect their products, but also try on their products and have an easier exchange and returns process in person at The Glen shopping centre. We’re hoping to launch that within six months. From there, we’re going to have more pop-up stores, expos and, we hope, some little market stalls, so that we are able to provide our expertise and have that interaction with our customers that we love so much. One day, we’d love to open our own store, but it’s just juggling big goals and being a small business. The Parcel Concierge program is a great stepping stone. We’ll be able to offer that in-person experience whilst we can’t afford to open our own shop. IR: Beyond that partnership, what are your other priorities for 2023? EC: We’re in the later stages of getting our first fashion-forward range out there. It’s been designed and is sitting with the manufacturers at the moment, which we’re excited about. It’s a funky range that shows more of Jam’s personality. The products we’ve made up until now are wardrobe staples, but going forward, we’re going to be a bit more youthful, have a bit more colour, and people will start to see what Jam’s aesthetic really is. MR: That [range] was co-designed by Rachel Shugg, who’s a junior fashion designer with disability, whom we’ve brought on to give her some experience, but also to help us with the fashion side. IR: Can you provide a snapshot of the business today? How big is the team? MR: At this stage, it’s just us two. We’re hoping in 2023 to be able to scale the business to employ two or three key roles. One of those will be a permanent fashion designer; Rachel is just contracting with us at the moment. We are currently pitching for investment to scale our business, so that we can offer more products to the disability community because it is so minimal at the moment. We want to be the leaders of inclusive fashion in this country, so we need to grow our business. The aim is to gain that capital within the next six months.