This female entrepreneur launched an adaptive clothing brand after losing 80% of her mobility
Have you ever tried to close your jacket with one hand? Put on pants while you’re still seated? Or maybe you’ve tried looking for winter clothes beyond a shawl or blanket for someone in a wheelchair? These are just some of the hassles people with disabilities go through every day just to find the right clothes.
Based in Kolkata Soumita Basu was ready to travel to the Netherlands to do her master’s degree when she first experienced nagging foot pain. Over time, the foot pain turned into a mobility issue in its own right, and Soumita, then 30, was unable to move anything from her jaws to her toes.
After several hospital visits, poking and pushing, in 2014 Soumita was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. psoriatic arthritisa form of arthritis that affects people with psoriasis.
“Apparently, I had a very unique manifestation of the disease. So now I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m an extremely unique person,” Soumita laughs in his characteristic cheerful manner.
“It went undiagnosed for three years, but eventually left me totally bedridden. I couldn’t even turn the sides on my own. People would knock me over and pull me back into an upright position,” says Soumita, now 39, during a conversation with His history.
Soumita’s need for custom clothing eventually led to the birth of Zyenika Fashion in 2019. Based in Kolkata, Zyenika offers a range of adaptive and inclusive clothing for people with disabilities and physical challenges who find it difficult to dress or need assistance.
“I was in a wheelchair most of the time and used crutches when I could. However, it has become more difficult for me to go to public places as they have stairs, small entrances, etc. “says Soumita.
Renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in his twenties and who has spent much of his life in a wheelchair, once said: “People with disabilities are vulnerable because of the many barriers they face. they face: behavioral, physical, and financial. Tackling these barriers is within our reach… But most importantly, tackling these barriers will unlock the potential of so many people who have so much to contribute to the world.
For Soumita, the first step toward breaking down these barriers meant being able to “dress within my limits.” When she started looking online for clothing options, she was convinced there was a problem, but also naively believed there would be a solution –personalized clothing for people with disabilities. “I couldn’t believe it wasn’t very common,” she says.
After some initial research, finding a gap in the inclusive clothing market and trying out the clothing on her own, Soumita launched Zyenika with the support of GIAN (Grassroots Innovations Augmentation Network), Ahmedabad.
A wrap-around saree that can be worn lying down, a top that opens from the armholes for people with limited shoulder and arm movement, a buttonless kurta, knee pads in the pants to prevent bruising for people who crawl and tailored loungewear for both men and women are just a few of the garments she has worked on and continues to innovate. The prices of the products are between Rs 600 and Rs 5000.
She continues, “For an adult, it’s really hard, not just emotionally as a process, but even physically, to go through someone changing clothes when you can almost never have a stable body.”
Although she has no professional training in the field, Soumita’s experiences have been her greatest lessons. Soumita thinks it’s a blessing not to have formal training, as it gives her the space to think outside the box.
She talks about her experience designing clothes for a nine-year-old child in a wheelchair, who had trouble getting to the school bathroom due to the standard uniform design. Soumita says, “The shorts were designed in such a way that while sitting on the wheelchair itself, he can go to the toilet and use it on his own without any additional help. He told me how it helped him to keep going to school, otherwise he would have to be homeschooled, which he really wasn’t looking forward to.
Impact in more ways than one
Soumita is keen to employ women and people with disabilities, directly or indirectly. Currently, she outsources much of the sewing work to marginalized communities and is also in the process of building her own factory.
“I want to build one of those businesses that sets an example for others on how to be both profitable and inclusive. Inclusion isn’t an extra cost you add, even though that’s what most people, because the processes are designed in a very exclusive way. In a jungle, you can’t have just one elephant, right? You have to have a whole ecosystem! she remarks. Zyenika as a brand is also aware of not adding to the landfill and believes in reusing and recycling.
Over the past two to three years, Zyenika has mainly provided personalized and tailor-made garments. Some other niche brands that are also looking at inclusive fashion in India include Kerala-based Move Ability and Cocoon by Old is Gold Store, Chennai. Soumita is currently preparing its ready-to-use collection and wants to make it available on the shelf for people who have urgent needs. She hopes to launch this in less than a month via social media and Zyenika’s website.
Talking about her organization, she says: “My mother, Amita Basu, is the co-founder of Zyenika. However, with time and her experience with me, she is not only a mother, but also someone who knows how to be a primary caregiver. It can be difficult on some days, because I still get sick very often, and if I need my mother, the founder and the co-founder can be away. So it was a challenge.
Now Soumita is looking forward to building a small but reliable team that can work on Zyenika’s vision of making adaptive clothing more of a norm than an exception.
“I want to enter the winter wear segment soon because, you know, we have the same problem in the winter. Every day my mind runs at a different speed, my body runs at a different speed, and my business runs at another gear. So, for now, I’m going to take each day as it comes…” concludes Soumita.