Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast: Making Art Work

#257: Tracy Vollbrecht (Adaptive & Universal Fashion Design) (pt. 2 of 2)

January 15, 2024 Nick Petrella and Andy Heise
Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast: Making Art Work
#257: Tracy Vollbrecht (Adaptive & Universal Fashion Design) (pt. 2 of 2)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

This week on the podcast is part two of our interview with Tracy Vollbrecht. She’s the founder of Vollbrecht Adaptive Consulting, an adaptive fashion consultancy rooted in universal design principles. With work featured in Women’s Wear Daily, Vogue, Oprah Daily and Cosmopolitan, Tracy is a recognized adaptive and universal design consultant. Her first experience with inclusive, functional fashion came when she unknowingly put universal design principles into action to help her dad manage his Multiple Sclerosis. Prior to starting her company, she held designer positions at companies such as JuniperUNLTD’S Yarrow and ULEX,  and Macy’s. Tracy is an ardent proponent of fashion for all, so you won't want to miss her thought-provoking interview. https://www.vollbrechtadaptiveconsulting.com/

As the fashion world wakes up to the diverse needs of all its consumers, Tracy takes us through the exciting opportunities blossoming for entrepreneurs in this space. Her insights reveal the critical importance of consumer education in bridging the gap between available adaptive options and those who need them most. Understanding the complexities of catering to various needs, she underscores the significance of collaboration with the disabled community in creating truly inclusive clothing. From discussing the exciting potential of getting adaptive fashion into brick-and-mortar stores to the personal stories driving change, this episode is a beacon for anyone passionate about inclusive design.

Join us as we uncover the heart of what makes adaptive fashion not just necessary but revolutionary. Tracy shares a sneak peek into her upcoming course that promises to fill the educational void and propel forward-thinking creators into the spotlight. She fires up our imaginations with tales of how questions can fuel both artistic vision and entrepreneurial spirit, all while highlighting the beauty of inclusivity in fashion. By the end of our conversation, you'll feel the pulse of an industry on the cusp of greatness and be inspired by Tracy's dedication to fashion that truly fits everyone. Subscribe and stay tuned to see how the world of fashion is being reshaped for the better, one stitch at a time.

Announcer:

Welcome to the Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast. Making Art Work. We highlight how entrepreneurs align their artistry, passion and vision to create and pursue opportunities to capture value in the arts. The views expressed by guests on the Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast are solely their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the podcast or its hosts. The appearance of a guest on the podcast, the venture they represent or reference to any product or service does not imply an endorsement or recommendation by the podcast or its hosts. The content provided is for entertainment and informational purposes only and does not constitute business advice. Here are your hosts Andy Heise and Nick Petrella.

Andy Heise:

Hello Arts Entrepreneurship Podcast listeners. My name is Andy Heise.

Nick Petrella:

And I'm Nick Petrella. Tracy Vollbrecht is joining us today. She's the founder of Vollbrecht Adaptive Consulting, an adaptive fashion consultancy rooted in universal design principles, with work featured in Women's Wear Daily, vogue, oprah Daily and Cosmopolitan. Tracy is a recognized adaptive and universal design consultant. Her first experience with inclusive, functional fashion came when she unknowingly put universal design principles into action to help her dad manage his multiple sclerosis. Prior to starting her company, she held designer positions at companies such as Juniper, unlimited's, yaro and Ulux and Macy's. Tracy's website is in the show notes so you can learn more about her and her broad experiences in the fashion industry. Thanks for being with us, tracy.

Tracy Vollbrecht:

Nice to be here.

Nick Petrella:

So I was wondering if well-known brands are becoming more involved in adaptive design and if they are, is that expanding your total serviceable market Like? Are you getting more business from that?

Tracy Vollbrecht:

Great question. So definitely expanding, for sure. In terms of just sheer numbers, like we mentioned, you know about 10 in 2017 to over 100 now. So that element is definitely expanding. Who I can work with, potentially? Who would want to work with me? And there is a little bit of a different approach that I take based on the size of the client or the potential client. So, for example, a big brand will definitely want to use their in-house designers. They might bring me in for a little bit of guidance or research or training, but they'll definitely want to usually keep it in-house, versus a small brand might hire me to do some designing or might hire me for a little bit more hands-on feedback element of it. So there is, you know, people who are interested in getting into this space do then become potential clients for me, which is exciting. And then the other route really is there are brands, like Under Armour, for example, that are already out there doing pretty inclusive things. I've seen a couple of different activewear brands that have products that have these awesome features and they could work so well for people with disabilities. So that's often where I'm reaching out to them and being like hey, have you thought about this? Would love to work with you to get this out there, because it's almost a little easier to say, hey, you don't have to change anything in the design process. Let's just test this first and see if what I think is true actually is true, and then we can go from there versus you know a commitment to, I'm going to develop an adaptive collection, which big brands are making those commitments, which is great, yeah.

Andy Heise:

But I wonder how much of this might be consumer education too. Like people that need this type of clothing, do they know to look for adaptive design or adaptive collections? You know what I mean. People on the podcast couldn't see me doing quotes.

Tracy Vollbrecht:

You are hitting the nail on the head in terms of the. Basically, the way that I approached starting my consulting company was dividing the work into three different pillars. So our three pillars are education, evaluation and evolution. That first element of education is I would love to say that the work is divided, 30% in each category, but it ebbs and flows, so I don't even know if I could, you know, make a stat on there, but that first piece of education really is such a funnel to the next pieces and really is so important and so key because there is a bit of a market gap. There is brands like we mentioned, over 100 of them. There are brands doing this, but there are so many consumers that don't know these brands are doing this and whether they don't know it because, for example, the big brands that we mentioned, they don't have a lot of their adaptive products in stores. So a customer is not walking through the store and or using a wheelchair, rolling through the store and seeing the product. So that's one element of it. But there's also this other element of no one ever said adaptive fashion to them. I never said adaptive design, universal design, which I was in that vote when I put those universal design principles to work for my dad. I didn't know it was universal design. I didn't know it was adaptive fashion. I had never heard those terms before. I was just doing something, that, seeing a product that I used, and doing something that helped my dad, I did not really think much into it. Looking back I'm like, oh wow, that was some universal design principles, put those into work. But when I got into this space I didn't know that terms, didn't know I might have. Maybe, if I remember correctly, I might have googled for my dad, like clothing for people with disabilities, but I definitely did not think to Google adaptive fashion. So there is this huge gap between customers that are out there again, one in four people in the US, 16% of the global population that just don't know this exists. Or maybe they know it exists and are just not sure. They're like how is this going to work for me? I don't understand, or I would love to see it in person, which is totally understandable. So there is this education on the consumer side and then education on the brand side, and I think it is really important for the brands to recognize that there are people who don't know that these products exist, don't know what these terms are. So it is kind of on the brand to do some education and on people like me to do education around getting the consumer to the market that already exists.

Nick Petrella:

Is the industry doing anything Like is there a council on adaptive fashion, or are there conferences, things like that? Are they doing anything to increase awareness?

Tracy Vollbrecht:

There is not a council, nor is there a conference, but maybe I should add that to my business to-do list. But definitely within the fashion industry there is some education around it. Major organizations like the Council of Fashion Designers of America have done panels on adaptive design. There's definitely some various talks, different organizations involved in this, to get the word out there, to get education around this. There's also fashion shows and other organizations. I tend to do a lot of panels and talking with college students so that all of those outreach elements are growing and gaining some momentum for sure.

Andy Heise:

Do you know where the term adaptive design originated?

Tracy Vollbrecht:

That's a great question and I don't know specifically. In terms of the history of what I call adaptive fashion, it actually goes back to the mid 1900s. In, let's say, late 50s, early 60s. There were these two really influential women, helen Cookman and Virginia Pope. Virginia Pope was the New York Times style editor and she recommended Helen for a position. Basically it was a research position through NYU looking at clothing and the interaction with clothing and people with disabilities. For context, this is like the post-war time period. People are coming back from serving in World War II with disabilities. Now, prior to this, people with disabilities were really, unfortunately, at home, they were in institutions, they were really hidden, which is terrible. But then we have this movement of people coming back from the war, people who had lived everyday lives, who had gone to grocery stores, who had gone to work, and now they themselves were disabled and so fitting that back into society. We get awesome organizations like the one that Helen and Virginia founded, which then they called it functional fashions and actually it was a really big movement. They developed about a 17 piece collection, debuted the collection and about 35,000 people and organizations reached out to get a brochure. Again, this is pre-internet. There's some awesome newspaper clippings talking about this and these various brands signed up to say, hey, we want to take this design and add it to our own collection. And these functional fashion pieces were available in some big department stores like Be, altman and Lorde and Taylor. So it really was this awesome movement. Unfortunately, the movement kind of died when Helen Cookman and Virginia Pope passed away. So that's what I call the first wave of adaptive fashion, which was labeled functional fashions. And then from there there is a bit of a shift from fashion, the fashion element of it, more towards recovery and clothing specifically for the elderly. And then from there it shifts back, thanks to awesome organizations and various brands, in the late 90s, early 2000s, and that's what I then call the second wave of adaptive fashion. And that's really more so where the adaptive fashion or adaptive design elements come into play there or terms.

Nick Petrella:

Adaptive just makes more sense because functional by very nature. If you're wearing it, there has to be a function, right?

Andy Heise:

It's sort of implied right.

Nick Petrella:

Yeah, that's what I think. So, tracey, you were talking about marketing a few times, so I'm wondering how do you market your services, and has that changed over the years?

Tracy Vollbrecht:

Definitely hasn't really changed. I'd say the opportunities that come to my doorstep end up have grown, which is awesome, but in terms of what I'm specifically doing, it's been pretty much the same. And because I am B2B, I do have social media Instagram and TikTok and I post on there but that's really kind of more for the brand establishing the company. The actual client acquisition element really comes through outreach and LinkedIn, as well as kind of general networking. Someone that I chat with that says, oh, you should talk to this person, or someone recommends someone to me, and then they message me on LinkedIn. So that's mainly my marketing strategies there.

Nick Petrella:

Yeah, I imagine the more well-known you become, people will just start cold calling you.

Tracy Vollbrecht:

That's the goal, right.

Nick Petrella:

Have you experienced that?

Tracy Vollbrecht:

I have experienced some a few now, just like people who messaged me on LinkedIn and said hey, so, and so told me about you, or hey, I found you through this, which is really awesome. So, hoping more of that grows, it would be lovely to spend less of my time on marketing. More of it on the actual work, right?

Andy Heise:

Well, my guess is that this class will be helpful in that right. So one of the strategies that I talk about with my students too, is like establishing yourself as a subject matter expert in something which is going to draw attention not attention, but draw viewers whatever people to you, and they look to you for answers, and then, once they start thinking of you that way, they're like oh well, maybe, maybe we should hire them to do something, or something whatever.

Tracy Vollbrecht:

Yeah, definitely exactly my mindset when thinking about developing this course, thinking about the white space that was there was like okay, let's do it.

Andy Heise:

Are there? So, are there? You mentioned this gap, this white space of information and resources about adaptive and universal design. Are there? Are there some existing resources that you might point someone who's interested in this too?

Tracy Vollbrecht:

Yeah, so definitely would start off with a little self promotion there. Would love to have anyone take my course. The it's going to be a 10 part course and the first course is scheduled to launch on December 1st so excited to get that out there yeah, just in a few short weeks and working hard over here. And in addition to that, and almost actually more importantly than my own course, the number one resource let's call it and for our listeners I just did some air quotes around resource is listening to the disabled community. That is number one. Hard. Stop Anyone who wants to get into this space. If you are not working with people with disabilities, you are doing it wrong. That's the only way to do it wrong. There's lots of variation. You know. Disability is so different and wide ranging. Different people have different experiences, so for the most part, there's kind of almost no way to do adaptive fashion wrong unless you do not work with people with disabilities. That is absolutely key. People with disabilities do have this lived experience. They are bringing what they've experienced with clothing to the table, and that working with people with disabilities can come in lots of different forms and I encourage my clients to do all of that. I help connect them so the different forms can be. On the research step so that's doing focus groups or even starting with following people with disabilities on Instagram, on various social media is reading books by people with disabilities. One that I love to recommend that's a fairly new is called demystifying disability, and that is by Emily Ladao. I may be saying her last name wrong, but I think I got it, so that one's a great place to start on. Just like what is disability? You know, all of those very kind of intro level questions. There's also a ton of other books out there by disabled authors which are great to check out. So, again, in that you know, education first in terms of reading books, kind of familiarizing yourself with the disability community if you don't have a personal connection to it. Next level is research in terms of talking with people with disabilities, conducting surveys and interviews and listening to who you think your target audience will be From there, in the kind of general fashion cycle, would then be going into the design and development process, and so that might be running some designs past a group of people with disabilities that you're working with. But then the next key element here is wear testing, which I have mentioned a thing of time or two so far. Basically, that is taking a product at whatever stage of product may be, it doesn't necessarily need to be finalized and giving it to someone multiple people who are in your target audience and saying hey, would love for you to wear this product for an hour or two hours or do, if you know, say, a workout top. I'd love for you to work out in it. If it's a blazer meant for a professional tire, hey, do you mind sitting at a desk in this blazer for a few hours and then coming back and saying, okay, give me all the feedback. What did you think, what worked, what didn't work? So that is kind of what I would call a feedback session, and so I do work with my clients to help them do this process. It can be a little intimidating in the beginning if you've never done a wear testing process before. So there's that whole element and really incorporating the feedback that you get, which that depends on what stage in the fashion development process you're in. So, for example, if you're earlier in the research and development, you might be able to take this product and completely switch what it's going to be your scrap, it start over, versus if you're in a second or third round of wear testing, you might just make some smaller modifications, really kind of fine tune the product and then from there in merchandising and marketing. It's working with disabled influencers, it's listening to their voices there, and the big thing across all of these different elements in which disabled people are resources invaluable resources is that people with disabilities need to be paid equivalent to people without disabilities. So if your marketing budget is $100,000 and half of it is going to models without disabilities, the other half better be going to models with disabilities in terms of equal pay and really paying people for their experience and for sharing their time, whether in the wear test or a focus group or research. So that's kind of from the brand side of it. And then for just general listeners, it's definitely engaging following people on social media, reading books, and there's often, like we mentioned a little earlier, there's usually some panels and various talks around this. Often they're recorded or virtual, so tuning into those is also always great to learn more. Any panels that I'm on or speaking engagements I'm on, I do try and promote those and reshare those on social media. So following me would not be a bad thing. I wouldn't mind that.

Nick Petrella:

Yeah, you know I teach a fair amount of fashion students in my courses and a lot of them will want to pursue becoming a stylist, so do you do that as a revenue stream as well?

Tracy Vollbrecht:

I do not do direct styling with people with disabilities. I can think of one woman. Her name is Stephanie Thomas. She has a disability and she is a disability stylist. She mainly works in styling people for runway shows, which is awesome, so that's definitely a whole area as well. The closest that I kind of get into styling is really working to train people on what to consider when it gets to a photo shoot or what to consider if you're working physically in the store and someone with a disability comes in. What things on the styling side of it to make sure that they're able to look good in the product.

Nick Petrella:

Is that in your course?

Tracy Vollbrecht:

The specific elements of how to do that are not in my course Not yet in your course. Not yet. In my course, you need to be a feature element in there, but I do love to kind of train people on the things that I do. So that's you know. I've been on a photo shoot where, on a photo shoot set, where a model who's using a wheelchair is getting photographed, and then I look over and see that her pants are all the way up to her rib cage and it looks ridiculous, run over and say like, hold on a second. You know, proportion is important. Let's, yes, these pants come up high on this wearer, but let's then pull the shirt out and lower to more, make that natural waist proportions, rather than having her look like her goal, which is, I guess, maybe a trend in itself if someone wants to do that. So those elements of styling really are key and essential too in all of this.

Andy Heise:

Yeah, it also occurs to me a lot of the things you're talking about. The principles of universal and adaptive design for fashion and apparel are probably those basic principles can be applied to any sort of product design or something like that. So certainly there's contextual, specific elements to fashion and apparel. But if you're going to approach universal adaptive design, for fill in the blank, there are some universal concepts that would be relevant.

Tracy Vollbrecht:

Definitely, and the term universal design actually really came more so from the architecture space. You often see it in terms of a building that is designed without steps, because steps don't work for everyone. If we start with a ramp or we start with a gradual incline to get into the building, we don't need to then go back and add steps for only the people who need steps. No one needs steps. So, yeah, that term came from architecture, moved more into design as a whole and, for sure, the work that I do could definitely be applied to things outside of fashion. I just happen to like close and accessories and shoes. So sticking with what I'm doing, but I would love to see it outside of fashion too.

Nick Petrella:

Isn't that how Oxo started? Oh, XO.

Tracy Vollbrecht:

Right. So I am often a brand or company that I love to site. So basically, the founder of I don't know, do you say Oxo? I say OXO. I don't know what's correct Oxo, oxo, basically the founder of the company, or the inventor. His wife had arthritis and a standard can opener which has, like the small little legs, was too hard for her to grasp so he just made this can opener that was thick and chunky and it worked for her. He developed that product. A lot of other people were like, oh, this is easier to use. And now they have a whole line of products that are just easier to use.

Nick Petrella:

Yeah, totally unrelated. I bought a squeegee the other day.

Tracy Vollbrecht:

Maybe that's why I thought of this.

Nick Petrella:

I just like the design. Yeah, yeah, I don't get out much.

Andy Heise:

Okay.

Nick Petrella:

So, tracy, you are in the early part of your career, you're just taking off, so you're in the thick of it. You're not old and jaded like two of us. If you could change one thing about adaptive fashion, what would it be?

Tracy Vollbrecht:

I think it really is that education element that I mentioned, that there are brands out there doing awesome work and there are consumers out there that just don't know about it, and I think this is in terms of problems to change. Probably one of the better problems to have is connecting those two elements, but really I think could just make such a difference in so many people's lives. Going back to my experience with my dad, for him to be more comfortable but still feel like himself was game changer and I hear that from people with disabilities that I work with all the time Apparel can really be a gatekeeper. If you don't have interview clothes, you're not going to an interview. If you don't have a dress that you can wear to prom or to a wedding, you're not going to prom or the wedding. So for adaptive fashion to really connect the market and the consumer, that's the key thing. I would change there and then that would allow me to steamroll into the other two pillars of evaluation and evolution that I love doing that work as well Great.

Andy Heise:

Yeah, it's an interesting problem. That problem is going to stick with me for a couple of days. I'll be thinking about that.

Tracy Vollbrecht:

If you have any thoughts around it, please send them back my way.

Andy Heise:

Well, Tracy, we've reached the point of the interview where we ask all of our interviewees the same three questions, and the first question is what advice would you give to someone else wanting to become an entrepreneur?

Tracy Vollbrecht:

Yeah, this advice is kind of twofold. The first one is get experience first. There is no way I could be doing what I am doing now if I didn't have experience at a startup, experience at a corporate company, experience at launching brands, experience working with cross functional partners all of the experience that I gained. It really has been essential to moving into an entrepreneurship role. And on top of that, all of that experience that I gained also came with income. So that's next piece of advice is being realistic. Healthcare is a thing you need it. It costs a lot of money. On the entrepreneur side, Cost of living is continually going up. So for me, gaining that experience learning new skills on someone else's dollar allowed me to save. So that now, when I'm in this entrepreneurship role, where Income ebbs and flows there are periods when I have a lot of work and periods when I don't that savings there has really been crucial. So those two elements of get experience first and be realistic in terms of cost of life, health care, all of the things that you can't avoid just because you absolutely love your job or you founded the very best company those other elements don't go away.

Nick Petrella:

What can we do to ensure the arts are more accessible and reaching the widest possible audience?

Tracy Vollbrecht:

Representation. We need to see people with disabilities in fashion, whether that's as a model, whether that's wear testing, you know, in campaigns, hearing their voices on social media, talking about products, and even in the education sense, in terms of seeing people with disabilities at your university or involved in your fashion program, so we can funnel people with lived experience into roles like fashion designer, buyer, all of these different roles that we've talked about. That will then go into the industry. So we really need to start off with representation. Representation matters.

Andy Heise:

Lastly, what's the best artistic and or entrepreneurial advice you've ever been given?

Tracy Vollbrecht:

Ask questions, keep asking questions, don't stop asking questions.

Nick Petrella:

Great Well, Tracy, it's great to hear your passion for the field of adaptive fashion. You're making a difference to so many people and it's been great to have you on.

Tracy Vollbrecht:

It has really been a pleasure to talk to you guys about my work and I'm excited to see where this fashion, adaptive fashion industry goes.

Andy Heise:

Thanks, Tracy.

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