Life-changing accident leads to innovative fashion for wheelchair users
Steven Claeys often thinks back to the day he found out he would never walk again.
“I had just finished the first semester of my master’s studies, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life,” says the 26-year-old (pictured). “Applied economics wasn’t really my thing, so I decided to put my studies on hold, booked plane tickets and went to Australia for six months.”
Hopping trains between cities or cruising along the coast with new friends, he found himself at a small farm south of Brisbane, in the country’s east, where he hoped to pick up some extra cash before heading back on the road.
“One evening I was driving a utility vehicle back to the farm when I lost control of the wheel and skidded off the road,” he recalls. “It was hours before anyone found me and the rescuers had to call in a helicopter to pull me out.”
As he woke up in hospital in Sydney, doctors told him that the injuries he’d sustained had left him paralysed from the chest down, with only limited movement in his arms and hands. “At first, I couldn’t even swallow, let alone eat or drink,” he says. “Two months passed before I was flown back to Belgium.”
His home in Antwerp was fitted with a lift, and as he underwent intensive physical therapy at the university hospital in Ghent, his closest friend began helping him out with basic daily routines.
“But once you regain some of the confidence, you begin looking to the future,” Claes says. “You want to try doing things on your own, like washing yourself, eating, or getting dressed.”
That last aspect was especially important to him. “I grew up with three sisters, so I always had to look great. As a student, I usually wore a blazer and a tie, or even a full suit.”
But all that changed when he found himself confined to a wheelchair. “Now, whenever I went out, I had to wear trousers that were either way too big and ugly or very uncomfortable, if not outright painful.”
He asked his therapist about wheelchair-adapted clothing, but the trousers “looked like they were made for old people, with these bulky cargo pockets and boring design,” he says. “On top of that, they were made of synthetic fabric that wasn’t even stitched right and had these huge seams on the back – a recipe for pressure sores.”
Encouraged by his family and friends, he decided to make his own. In February 2015, family friends introduced him to Mira Sohlen, a fashion designer from Sweden. “I told her about my situation and what I was hoping to achieve, and she said, ‘You know what, why don’t we give it a go?’”
From the get-go, he didn’t want to compromise on look or comfort. The goal was to make clothing that would be both stylish and empowering. “The trousers couldn’t be practical but ugly, or the other way around.”
The slim-fit design they came up with features extended trouser legs and a higher back, and the cotton, interwoven with elastic Lycra fibres, protects from skin damage and pressure sores. And on the back, Claeys did away with conventional seams and added horizontal pullers for putting the trousers on.
“It’s a balance between looks and comfort,” he says. “Having something nice on might give you the confidence needed to step outside the house and make you feel like your bum isn’t aching all the time.”
In addition to raised side seams and an angled pocket for easy access, there is also a magnetic closure instead of buttons. “That was a stroke of genius from Mira,” Claeys says with a smile. “Or maybe it was me. I want to say it was me, but I don’t remember.”
After months of work, and with the first pair ready to try on, he caught himself feeling excited and anxious at the same time. “When you’re in the position I’m in, you often ask yourself, ‘Is this even possible anymore? Will I ever be able to brush my own teeth, eat with a fork, get dressed?’”
Anticipation growing, he struggled to pull up the trouser legs. When he finally got back into the wheelchair, he let out a cry and smiled.
“I rushed over to the mirror to make sure I wasn’t just imagining it. I mean it’s so difficult to look at yourself in a wheelchair and think that you look nice, but in that moment, sitting in front of the mirror, yeah, I kind of loved myself again.”
He shared the experience on his blog and the response from his followers encouraged him to make the same trousers for others. Last year, with the help of Julia Gerasko, a Flemish designer who specialises in manufacturing, he founded Makt.
In December, the start-up raised more than €10,000 on Indiegogo, and Clayes aims to deliver the first trousers to his backers by April. With interest from all over the world, he’s already planning to launch an online shop and hopes to one day equip the trousers with sensors and heat-absorbing material. He’s also looking into a line of adapted clothing for women.
In retrospect, he has no regrets about going to Australia.
“People always say to me, ‘Stephen, thank God you didn’t die’. I don’t play the ‘what if’ games any more, but in that moment, I knew my life was over and I would have to start a new one,” he says. “Things happened the way they were supposed to happen, and I could only do one of two things – either feel sorry for myself and give up, or try to make the best of it.”
In a way, he adds, “I’m in a much better place than before the accident. Back then I wasn’t sure who I was and what I wanted in life, but now, now I’m crystal clear.”
Originally published in Flanders Today