How the Nike Go FlyEase upended the world of adaptive fashion

Louie Lingard is a sneakerhead. He’s been one, he says, for years — New Balance, Reebok, Adidas, he likes them all, though Nike is his favourite. 

But despite his interest, there’s one thing missing for the 19-year-old: access. 

“That’s really the struggle … just finding something that fits over the orthopedic,” he said.  

Lingard has arthrogryposis, a condition which restricts joints mobility and causes muscle weakness. That makes finding shoes in the right size difficult, as is maneuvering them around the braces he wears on his legs.

Those difficulties, Lingard said, aren’t uncommon for people with disabilities. So when Nike announced the release of the newest version of their FlyEase shoe — which allows the wearer to put it on without bending over or even using their arms at all — he knew he needed a pair.

Louie Lingard, 19, said he was disappointed by the rollout of Nike’s FlyEase shoes. ‘They should have been held to a higher standard knowing that people could benefit from it,’ he said. (Submitted by Louie Lingard)

But though the Go FlyEase was touted by design lead Sarah Reinersten as a shoe “for everybody,” Lingard said it seems the opposite is true. While the shoe could have done the most good for the disabled community, instead it was released in limited quantities and snatched up by resellers.

“I was very excited to see them adding that inclusiveness to their shoes,” he said. “It was huge for me. And it was really a big disappointment when I saw the way that it rolled out.”

Lingard soon took to TikTok to post about the irony of an accessible shoe becoming inaccessible to the community who would benefit from it the most. In the video, which quickly went viral, he explained how difficult it is for those with actual mobility issues to acquire the shoe. 

And in interview with CBC, he and others spoke of how the situation highlights issues unique to the adaptive fashion industry — and the people who depend on it.

WATCH | TikTok sneaker fan disappointed by Nike’s rollout of accessible shoe:

Louie Lingard, a content creator on TikTok, was excited for the release of Nike’s FlyEase shoe, touted as an accessible option for people with disabilities. But since resellers drove prices up by hundreds of dollars, he’s upset with how Nike planned the rollout. 1:47

‘Really universal,’ but resold at $500 US

Adaptive fashion  means designing apparel for people with reduced mobility, range of motion or other disabilities. 

In advertising the Go FlyEase, Nike didn’t use the word “disabled” or specifically market toward the community — despite the fact that it was originally designed with them in mind.

“The original concept around the shoe was to support our adaptive athletes better,” designer Haley Toelle said in a press video announcing the shoe’s release. “We just quickly, throughout the process, found that the shoe was really universal.”

And the first version of the FlyEase, which still required the wearer to use a zipper around the back of the shoe, were specifically inspired by Matthew Walzer. Walzer, a student athlete, found it difficult to tie shoes as, due to cerebral palsy, he only had flexibility in one hand.

WATCH | What’s behind the Nike Go FlyEase design:

But, Lingard said, the current iteration of the shoe has strayed far from its origins. By treating the shoe in the same way Nike treats their other releases, prices have skyrocketed, with the only available pairs now going for upwards of $500 US. 

Releasing shoes in a limited quantity to gauge interest — or drive demand — isn’t a unique strategy. Lingard said many shoe companies employ similar techniques when introducing a new line, Nike included. 

Lingard says that shouldn’t have been the strategy here.

“I think with the shoe, they should have been held to a higher standard knowing that people could benefit from it,” he said.

That’s because, regardless of what Nike calls it, Lingard said the shoe is an example of adaptive fashion. Nike has not responded to CBC’s request for comment, but has previously said a wider launch of Go FlyEase will happen later this year.

Burgeoning world of adaptive fashion

Canadian fashion designer Izzy Camilleri sees the situation similarly, but she thinks there is a silver lining to the shoe’s introduction. 

Camilleri, who has designed wardrobes for such names as David Bowie, Angelina Jolie, Daniel Radcliffe and Meryl Streep, shifted focus from high fashion to adaptive clothing in 2005 after Toronto Star reporter Barbara Turnbull asked her to design outfits she could wear while working in a wheelchair. 

People who use a wheelchair, Camilleri explained, can have different requirements for clothing design — whether they are made to be easier to put on, or simply fall in a way that is comfortable to wear while seated. 

But despite the fact that the global market for adaptive fashion and apparel could reach $349.9 billion by 2023 according to research and advisory firm Coresight Research, Camilleri said most people aren’t even aware it exists. 

Designer Izzy Camilleri, who has clothed celebrity A-listers like Angelina Jolie, David Bowie and Meryl Streep, moved to adaptive fashion in 2005. (Maayan Ziv)

“Even the people that need it don’t even realize the options that are out there,” Camilleri said. “So there’s this education piece that we’re constantly having to work on.”

On top of that, Camilleri said, there are added hurdles to advertising adaptive clothing. 

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleged advertisers used Facebook’s ad platform to unlawfully restrict which users receive housing-related ads — including people with a disabilities. Soon after, Facebook removed over 5,000 targeting options to help prevent misuse, and also required all advertisers to comply with their non-discrimination policy.

Since then, adaptive fashion retailers — including Camilleri — have said their ads can be identified as discriminatory simply for targeting people with disabilities or showing medical devices. 

“When we’re putting up posts, they constantly get taken down until we get it right,” Camilleri said.

That can inhibit the ability for them to reach clients and spread awareness that adaptive fashion even exists. 

So, while advertisements that marketed the Go FlyEase specifically as adaptive fashion would have been ideal, marketing it for everyone may increase knowledge about it — which could bolster the field, Camilleri said.

“Maybe Nike could have approached it differently, but the whole accessible and adaptive market is still young,” she said. “And it’s really challenging. It’s really, really, really hard.”

Gradual, widespread change

While the market is young, more and more big brands are making forays into it. Along with Nike, Tommy Hilfiger has an entire adaptive collection, as does American shoe and clothing retailer Zappos.

Christina Mallon — chief brand officer of Open Style Lab, a nonprofit that helps design adaptive fashion for people with disabilities — said she applauds all brands that embrace adaptive fashion, including Nike. 

When she was 22, Mallon’s arms became paralyzed due to motor neuron disease. She said, since then she’s had to come up with creative ways to accomplish seemingly simple tasks, as “the world was not created with disabled people in mind.”

So to see the gradual shift of adaptive fashion becoming more common, she says, is heartening. Fashion has ignored problems that disabled people have to deal with every day, she said, so seeing  technology like the Go FlyEase marketed as an option for everyone could suggest more widespread change.

Christina Mallon, chief brand officer of non-profit Open Style Lab, says that brands’ forays into the world of adaptive fashion is a positive thing — even if it is gradual. (Oyediran Bamigboye)

“People don’t understand how hard buttons are for people with limited dexterity, Mallon said as an example. “But why are buttons still the same way they are? Why can’t buttons just be magnets? … I think designers need to ask themselves those questions.”

Still, she said the fact that the Go FlyEase sold out so quickly — and, likely, not to people with disabilities — is a cause for concern. Moving forward, they could rectify that mistake by giving first access to restocks to non-profits that represent people with disabilities, or open-source the shoe technology so people can create it on their own. 

Whatever happens with this shoe, adapting the world to make it more accessible is vital, says Mallon. Because regardless of your current level of mobility, that is likely to change as time goes on.    

“Every single person will become disabled at some point in their lives,” Mallon said. “So even if you don’t care about people with disabilities, you’ll become disabled at some point in your life, so you should care.”