27 December 2008

"FASHION IS NO LONGER DISABLED"


By R. B. STUART
Part Ten

Upon entering Kohl's Department Store I hadn't sensed anything other then a discount clothes store. That is until I stumbled upon a pair of female mannequins, dressed in jeans, one sitting in a wheelchair. I was struck by this rare sight, it took me back instantly to my own mother's stroke. Leaving her with left side paralysis, self-conscious and wheelchair bound, to live the last five years of her life in a seated position.

The wheelchair made her extremely self-conscious producing a homebound shame that crippled her self-esteem. Her social life had diminished, her comfort came from a "pet" bowl of ice cream or chocolates. It took several years of cajoling when I'd come home for a visit to attend gatherings. She'd defy me and whimper with self-pity, "No one wants to see an old lady in a wheelchair." I'd reason, "No one is looking at you in your wheelchair. Do you stare and talk about people you see in a wheelchair?" "No," she'd answer pouting in defeat as and pivot into her metal chair.

Finally after four years of my drill sergeant methods to get her out of the house. She sulked when the transport service drove us to Physical Therapy then on foot to the mall. She hadn't been in a store since the stroke, relying heavily on home health aids and family to shop.

I wheeled her 5'10 frame down a hill. Because of her pride she never attached the foot rests, it would only amplify her disability to herself and the world, so her long basketball legs were stretched out before her, her metal knee brace peeking out from under her left pant leg. Rolling along the emergency lane of the bypass, trudging up another hill it began to sprinkle. She laughed and held her face up to the sky as the raindrops kissed her cheeks. It had been so long since she was out in the rain---like the tin man her caution gave way to ecstasy. Filled with glee she shouted repeatedly, "Honey, what an adventure!"

I tugged, pushed and pulled her around every bend until in a distance we saw Kmart. Out of breath, her legs in cramps, both damp from the rain, I let go of the wheelchair. Her feet clad in brown orthopedic Frankenstein shoes dropped to the floor and she pulled herself over to the first rack of clothes she could find. The excitement shown over her face. Childlike awe glazed over her protruding hazel eyes as she marveled and caressed each fabric, like it was a babies face. She'd gasp in adoration as each rack of clothes were better than the last. I can only imagine how she would have felt if she saw a mannequin sitting too---in a wheelchair.

A simple pop into a department store for me, was a life changing event for her. For after that landmark day, her desire for life began to bloom again and she joined a senior day care. So the walk into Kohl's had stirred such strong emotions in me, I needed to know who was responsible for this progressive, socially aware stance for the disabled and why? And was this a trend?

Kohl's was founded in 1962 by the Kohl family of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And Larry Montgomery became CEO in 2003. I had hoped to speak directly with the man behind Kohl's, but a summer vacation took him away from the office. Thus, Vickie Shamion was elected to answer a few questions for me.

Who was consciously responsible in deciding to display a disabled mannequin? Ms. Shamion replied, "It is a total team effort. It takes a team to take a great idea that is representa- tive of customer demographics and bring it to fruition nationwide."

When was the first disabled mannequin displayed? "In 1995 and it was rolled out to a number of locations. It received a favorable consumer response and in the 589 Kohl's stores nationwide, over 90 percent feature wheelchair mannequins. Ultimately, every store will have one," she added.

I was able to interview a couple of industry insiders to see how widespread this was, their answers were much to my surprise. When I mentioned this unusual mannequin display to Alicia Hanson, associate editor at VM+SD Magazine she said, "I have never seen a mannequin in a wheelchair and I'm in charge of mannequin features and trend pieces. Although, the idea doesn't seem so unrealistic."

And Ron Rodrigues, VP of True Visual and former VP of VNY stated, "I have not seen the application of a mannequin, in a retail store, used in a wheelchair. However, I applaud Kohl's for apparently doing so. Nor have I witnessed them displayed in a wheelchair at any major industry tradeshows, and I have attended two to four a year worldwide, for twenty years."

This 9 billion dollar plus company may have gone nationwide, but they have been able to maintain the small family ideology born in Milwaukee over 40 years ago. In addition, Kohl's pioneering is bringing the disabled into mainstream society---through clothes. By acknowledging the disabled not only as active consumers, but someone's mother, father, daughter, brother or spouse. Then maybe through this simple act, the wheelchair they live life from---might become less conspicuous, and eventually disappear. If only my mother could have lived long enough to see this progressive change, I think it would have helped ease her discomfort of living life....in a seated position.



Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved, R. B. STUART. No reproduction of this blog in any form.

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