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UT graduate designs adaptive fashion line for people with disabilities

Mary Cayten Brakefield met with Paralympic athletes and spent time in a wheelchair, inspiring her to create a fashion line to meet the needs of more people.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Mary Cayten Brakefield has always wanted to go into fashion as her career.

"My mom taught me how to sew when I was 6 years old and I've loved it ever since," she said.

The former UT swimmer learned that fashion has another side when she joined a student-athlete leadership group on campus.

"Through that, I got to meet a couple of really awesome Paralympians and just talk with them about what it's like getting dressed in the morning," she said.

Brakefield realized adaptive fashion is needed for thousands of Americans living with disabilities, whose needs may not conform to typical styles.

"In the general population we all have very different bodies anyway, and then when you include disability or illness or injury, anything like that, the needs for fashion change," she said.

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Some of those needs include new kinds of closures. She said buttons and zippers are hard for some people to use, while Velcro and magnets work better.

People may have sensitivities to certain fabrics, or need things that can change temperature quickly.

Some clothes need to come in different lengths, such as a dress that Brakefield designed for a competition that tasked designers with making an outfit suitable for an average person and someone with dwarfism.

Credit: Mary Cayten Brakefield
Brakefield, left, took one dress and made it wearable by people with 2 different body types.

"How could someone who is almost 6 feet tall like myself, and someone with dwarfism, both wear the same dress?" she said. "So there were buttons on that dress and there're tiers in the skirt and you can button on or off the tiers depending on your height."

Brakefield said these adaptations can be made now by people who know how to sew but aren't easy to find when out shopping.

"It's gonna be awesome one day when all retailers understand that adaptive fashion is worthwhile and provides options for all of these customers," she said.

She's hoping to fill the void with the adaptive line she's starting with her mom, under the name Brakefields LLC.

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Brakefield won $10,000 in seed funding through the 2020 Boyd Venture Challenge. That's an annual grant competition for UT student-created start-ups, organized by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Haslam College of Business.

She's using that money for market research and to fund possible design patents. She said she is hoping to have clothes for sale within the next year.

Brakefield knows firsthand the struggles some people face with clothing.

She was diagnosed with a genetic mutation last spring and spent some time in a wheelchair. She said that experience is impacting her designs.

"As much as I talk to people and as much research as I do, there are still things you don't think about until you're living it," she said.

Brakefield is attending graduate school in the fall at Savannah College of Art and Design.

She just wants people living with setbacks to feel both functional and fashionable in their clothing.

People living with a disability or illness of any type with ideas for clothing adaptations that would help them can contact Brakefield via her email at mcb901@gmail.com.