“When it comes to inclusivity in clothing, it is not always about body sizes,” says Kolkata-based Soumita Basu.
Soumita is the founder of Zyenika Fashions, an adaptive and inclusive clothing brand for people with disabilities. The women-led organisation aims to “make stylish and elegant clothes that are easy, comfortable, and fit all body types and abilities”.
“While it’s easier than before to find plus sizes in clothing, it is often difficult for people with disabilities or physical challenges to find something that’s comfortable, fashionable, and affordable, all at the same time,” she says.
Zyenika was born not out of a general observation, but from Soumita’s own experiences.
She lost about 80 per cent of her mobility when she was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune disease, in 2014. “It started almost around the time I was 30, and over the years, it progressed and eventually left me bedridden for almost two years. At that point, I needed assistance from someone to even turn to one side,” she recalls, in conversation with The Better India.
An enterprise with a cause
Soumita says it wasn’t easy for her to adapt to the sudden change in lifestyle. “Though I was out of bed, I was mostly moving on a wheelchair and, at times, with the help of crutches. This opened my eyes towards understanding the difficulties faced by people with physical challenges,” says the 40-year-old entrepreneur.
Meanwhile, her mother and primary caregiver Amita, who manages operations at Zyenika, recalls, “When Soumita fell sick, she could no longer put on regular clothing. She had a wardrobe full of them, but couldn’t wear any by herself, even with my help. All she could manage were nighties.”
While struggling with her mobility, Soumita says that she eventually learned to accept and embrace her body. This led her to think about the need for the right clothing which was easy to wear, comfortable and matched her requirements.
“During my research, I wasn’t surprised to see that there were only a few brands that offered inclusive clothing for people with specific needs,” she says, adding that she also spoke to several people with physical challenges to understand their requirements.
This, she says, was an eye-opener, and she found that there were many people who have been facing similar issues. This brought in the greatest turning point in her life – building an inclusive clothing brand.
Above all, it was also her desire to break barriers and do something meaningful in life.
“I was at a point in my life where I didn’t have enough money to start something like Zyenika. But I was sure that I wanted to do it. So, I borrowed some money from a friend and wrote to Prof Anil Gupta, who heads the GIAN (Grassroots Innovations Augmentation Network), Ahmedabad. To my surprise he responded to my email and offered to help with my initiative,” explains Soumita.
Thus, in January 2020, she launched Zyenika with her mother.
Soumita says she started her venture after experimenting with designs and fabrics on herself. Eventually, she started taking orders from customers.
But a major challenge came in training tailors in stitching customised clothing, which was different from the usual. “They are used to working in a particular way. It was a bit difficult for them to comprehend the changes I was suggesting at first. So, I had to train them over and over again,” she says, adding that as of now, she works with nine tailors, including women and people with disabilities.
“Another challenge is that I fall sick very often, and it has been an on and off game. When it happens, my mother focuses completely on taking care of me. So such days have been difficult on the business front, as we both would be unavailable,” she explains.
Soumita, who used to work as a communications specialist, had no background in fashion or designing. “I think my life experience helped me to understand the needs and to figure out how to come up with the right designs. Also, I always make sure that I communicate with my clients to understand their requirements and design by taking in their suggestions. I am also particular about making the clothes not only comfortable, but also beautiful and pleasing to look at. For that, we have a few designers on board to make sure that all our clothes are aesthetically pleasing,” she elaborates.
Zyenika offers a wide range of clothes for women and men between the price range of Rs 950 and Rs 5,000. “The brand does have a focus on clothing for women, but I also design for men. Besides, I have recently started designing clothes for children with special needs. We have a collection of both casual and professional clothing with different features that caters to the specific needs. People can also customise their clothes according to their requirements,” she explains.
Products include trousers that can be worn without bending, a slip-on saree that can be worn just like a dress, a top that can be opened from the armhole, and adaptive inner wear for both men and women, among others.
“The response has been overwhelming. It made me realise that something as basic as a few changes in the clothing can have so much impact,” says Soumita.
Olly Mohanta, a Delhi resident and a sociology student, who has been using a wheelchair since childhood, says that clothes from Zyenika have made her life easier. “I love dressing up. But I have always faced difficulty in finding the perfect clothes. Hence, a baggy t-shirt and skirt have always been my go-to. I love wearing dresses, but most only serve certain stereotypes or certain kinds of body shapes or sizes.”
She adds, “This year, I came across Soumita and her brand Zyenika, and it was the best thing that happened to me. Soumita is so patient and has such an attention to detail that she listened to all my requirements and incorporated all of them perfectly. She herself picked the fabric and did an incredible job with my dresses. I have three dresses and a pair of pants from Zyenika.”
“Those pants have been such a blessing for a person like me, who often faces difficulties while using toilets, especially in public places. The pants give me the independence to use the loo as per my convenience and as per where I am, without seeking help from others,” she adds.
Zyenika started with an initial investment of Rs 21,000, says Soumita, adding that it wouldn’t have been possible without the love and support from her friends and family. “Though our brand is still in its initial stage, we are now able to earn a decent revenue in lakhs,” she says.
She now looks forward to building a unit and a team that can work towards Zyenika’s goal of making clothing more accessible and inclusive for the disabled.
Edited by Divya Sethu