Threads of independence
A social enterprise that sells adaptive clothing, which allows those with limited mobility to dress themselves.
BY: Eleanor Yap
It was all a chance encounter that took 39-year-old Shamla Ramasamy down the social enterprise path. She was doing some research on “adaptive clothing” and found that there was no such clothing available in the region. She thought that with a growing ageing population, the needs might arise for clothing that would allow those with physical difficulties to dress themselves. That started her thinking and starting PurpleThreads three years ago. According to Shamla, her enterprise is the only provider of adaptive clothing in Singapore and the region.
Ageless Online speaks to her on her new line and what makes her clothing so unique:
PurpleThreads isn’t just for seniors, right?
No it is not. While our adaptive clothing is especially suited for those with limited mobility, including the elderly, those who are in a wheelchair, those with arthritis – basically anyone with a limited range of motion in one or more joints – it is possible for anyone to wear them.
What’s with the name by the way?
I wanted a name that was homely and comfortable – like the wonderfully warm aroma of freshly baked bread in the morning. The colour purple is associated with royalty and spirituality, which is how I see the ageing process, and the word “threads” deals with fashion.
Your 63-year-old mom is a partner in the business. What is her role?
My mom Peggy is the brains behind the fashion designs in this enterprise. She’s a self-taught seamstress and is familiar with fashion, fabrics, etc. Some of our existing clients have requested specially-designed adaptive clothing for special occasions which she is able to create. For instance, we had a client who wanted to bring her mom who was very old to an Indian wedding. We took up the task and created an adaptive sari that her mom wore and which created quite a buzz during the wedding.
You are a full-time law lecturer in a tertiary institution. How do you juggle your work with your enterprise?
It’s not easy. Weekdays are primarily spent on work while my evenings and weekends are spent on PurpleThreads. In one I’m the “boss”, in the other I answer to a “boss”. It’s easier to be flexible with PurpleThreads than it is with my full-time job – so I have to prioritise my tasks. That said, being an entrepreneur as well as an educator has allowed me to share my experiences with my students and encourage them to be more entrepreneurial and also to be mindful of making sound decisions.
You are not a seamstress, neither are you into fashion. Do you think you have gotten in over your head and do you have regrets?
There have been times in the beginning when I felt that I had gotten in over my head. But given the overwhelming enquiries and interest that I have received from customers, I have absolutely no regrets about this endeavour. While I am not into fashion, such information is readily available and what I do not know I read up and find out. The beauty of a social enterprise is the ability to leverage on social capital so I seek out advise from more experienced enterprises out there.
I understand your clientele is mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia, and a handful in Singapore. Are most of them seniors?
Almost all of my clients are caregivers. They buy PurpleThreads’ adaptive clothing for their loved ones so that it is easier for them to be dressed. For instance, a client of mine from Indonesia whose husband met with an accident and is now wheelchair-bound, buys PurpleThreads’ adaptive wear because the ease of the clothing means that her husband is able to dress himself, unlike in the past when he needed help to dress. This has given him a sense of independence and restored some of his confidence in himself, which she said went a long way in helping their own relationship. Dressing yourself is a simple task that we often take for granted and we do not realise the far-reaching impact it has.
Can you share some other feedback you have received on your clothing?
Other feedback we have received is that it is stylish and practical.
Have you broken even? But profits aren’t your concern, why is that?
Yes, we’ve broken even. Reason that profits aren’t my concern for now is because it is a novel and new idea in Singapore. It takes time for anything new to take root before it becomes accepted in mainstream society so I am prepared for that.
How will you reach out to more Singaporeans and will you be looking at expanding your base beyond the regions you already serve? How will you do so?
PurpleThreads has a Web presence, which can be linked to various other related sites. We also intend to conduct free public talks at relevant events, write-ups in blogs and so on. I started PurpleThreads with the intent for it to go regional. This being a social enterprise, as PurpleThreads expands I intend to engage communities from across the region in providing employment opportunities to persons in the community who are in need of such employment. When sourcing for raw materials I also plan to seek out fair trade opportunities within the region.
Can you tell me more about your adaptive clothing and what makes them different from conventional clothing?
Creative use of closures such as button snaps, Velcro, large buttons and zippers which allow for the clothing to be put on more conveniently. Dresses for example, open from the neck to hem and are attached with Velcro. For trousers, the closures can be at the waist or the back to facilitate maximum convenience when putting on the garment. Such closures make it easy for anyone to wear the clothing. Fabrics used are stretchy and breathable to further ensure comfort.
I understand you previously brought the clothing in from US, Europe and Canada but you now have introduced a new line that caters to the Asian clientele. How then has your clothing and pricing changed?
PurpleThreads’ AdaptAbility is the newest line of clothing, which was introduced in March 2013. It features clothing that is more colourful and made with more breathable fabrics such as linen and cotton. It is also made to be more suitable for our smaller Asian frame. The designs for the clothing were inspired from LaSalle’s design students. They each drew from their own experiences with their family and loved ones to develop the new line. That said, the new line will take some time to have a well-entrenched manufacturing process set-up so in the meantime I will still bring in most of my clothing from the US and Canada. I hope for the processes to be up and running as soon possible and am currently looking for partners and collaborators.
Pricing for adaptive clothing is much higher than conventional clothing because it cannot be manufactured in the same way. The drafting, sewing and cutting of the fabric is much more complex. Also the amount of fabric used is much more. For example, a conventional T-shirt would only need 1.5m of fabric, while an adaptive one may easily need about 2.5m. The complexity also means that we have to ensure that the stitches are finer and tighter to ensure quality and durability. Our current price ranges from S$40 for a simple blouse to S$150 for a full-length dress.
You mentioned that there is a stigma on adaptive clothing and that people see it as a novelty rather than a necessity. Why is that?
I think it’s more of a mindset than anything else. We are so used to marginalising people who are different, that we classify adaptive clothing as only being suitable for people who are old or have some disability. Adaptive clothing is clothing that can be put on in a different way that is much easier and convenient to put on.
Besides the stigma, what other challenges have you faced with your social enterprise?
Awareness of such clothing is one of the biggest challenges. The other challenge that I face is the extensive range of clothing that needs to be created.
What would you say to others who would like to do a social enterprise targeted at seniors?
Spend more time with them. There are a myriad of opportunities to help seniors. I got an amazing opportunity just from one chance encounter. Imagine the possibilities if we spent more time understanding them.
Where do you see your social enterprise in five years?
To expect PurpleThreads to go regional is my intention as I said before, but I have to be realistic and circumspect about expanding too fast too soon. I will be focusing on building a strong base in Singapore and work on developing industry partners and working with the community to fine-tune and develop a more extensive line of adaptive wear such as sportswear.