Downs Designs Dreams: Special Jeans for Special Needs with Karen Bowersox | EDB 32


EDB host and Different Brains founder Hackie Reitman, M.D. in his new pair of NBZ jeans
Hackie Reitman, M.D. in his new pair of NBZ jeans

In this episode, Dr. Hackie Reitman talks with Karen Bowersox from Downs Designs Dreams and NBZ Jeans. Karen discusses the special clothes her companies make, her inspiration for starting the businesses, the work she is doing for veterans, and her experience with Down syndrome.

For more, visit: downsdesignsdreams.org

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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR)

Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman and Im here with Karen Bowersox, who is the founder of Downs Designs Dreams, and what a story she has. Shes going to tell you about–she has a company dedicated to making clothing for those of us with Down Syndrome. Karen, welcome to Different Brains! How are you?

KAREN BOWERSOX (KB)

Im fine, and its nice to meet you and Im glad to be here. And I can also say that I dont just make clothes for people with Down Syndrome, we also work with men and boys who have disabilities and troubles with buttons and zippers. So we have not only our Down Syndrome line of clothing, but also men and boys who have trouble manipulating buttons and zippers, so its very wide-spread.

HR

I just met William over there, who works with your veterans, and you work with a lot of veterans groups dont you?

KB

Yes, we do. Actually, just a few months ago, we just donated 50 pairs to our VA Hospital here in Cleveland, and we are working in conjunction with the VA out of Washington, the VA administration out of Washington DC, and theyre partnering us with about 68 hospitals of some very handicapped veterans who may need help in some of their dressing needs.

HR

Well we want to thank all of our veterans out there for helping protect us and doing all you do, and we want to thank you, Karen Bowersox, for looking out for our veterans and getting them the clothing they need.

KB

Well, we love it. And we started with jeans and now were expanding into dress pants, both in black and khaki, so if jeans are always appropriate attire for a job or a wedding or church or something like that, so were right in the middle of expanding our line of teams into dress pants of black and khaki. Our Downs’ line, we have from like age two all the way up to adults. Mothers ask me every day, I need khaki pants for my son to go to school, you know–my son, or my daughter has a job at McDonalds and they need to wear black pants–so we really have to open up our line and make our clothes even more available and more versatile, so that they can wear them not just for casual wear. They need to have some more dressy clothes.

HR

What do you find to be your biggest challenge?

KB

I dont find the challenge of fitting our customers in pants, because I think weve created–we actually designed, for example, our Downs’ line has 18 different styles. So we have different body shapes for people with Down Syndrome, and they are not typical, they dont really fit in off-the-rack clothing. They struggle with buttons and zippers and to find clothes that actually fit. So we have really nailed the body shapes, and so, through visual, like Skype and FaceTime I actually send out two or three of our jeans for them to try them on first, before we hem them. None of our Downs’ jeans are hemmed at this point, so if theyre unsure of how they fit because theyre very different, then we send them several to try on, in the privacy of their own home, maybe they cant go out shopping; nothing fits them anyway. A child with a disability, that may not be a comfortable zone for him, so sending them directly to their house for them to try on and then, with technology today, people with iPhones, I FaceTime. I can help them with the fitting. We make adjustments where necessary; alterations where necessary. So then they send everything back, my seamstress works on doing the alterations and the hemming and then we send them back, voila! Perfect fit. So the biggest challenge, then, is just a few of those shapes that are hard for us to fit. The NBZ brand, our No Button Zipperless jeans, thats what that stands for–those are standard mens and boys sizes. So you have autism now, so rampant, I think its about 1 out of 45 births–5 to 1 are boys. Those boys are struggling with zippers, and mothers send them to school in sweatpants because they want them to have independence, then theyre really not fitting in to their peers, so that gives them a sense of less. So by giving them jeans that stylish, easy–autism is a little difficult with their clothing sensitivities, but because of the soft, stretchy denim in our jeans, theyre pretty well-tolerated boy most with autism. So by–so the NBZ brand is not hard to fit. Those are standard sizes.

HR

So the NBZ brand–were going to break this down into two separate things: were going to talk about the NBZ brand, which is for people who have trouble with buttons and belts and getting their pants on and everything–what are some of the diagnoses, that those individuals, many of whom are veterans, might have?

KB

Well, you have people with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, just the elderly–with arthritis. A broken arm, lets say–Ive had people call me that theyve broken their arm and they cant get their–you know, pants on, so temporary injuries–Multiple Sclerosis—or comfort!

HR

Id like you to tell our audience, because I read a bit about your inspiration. Now my inspiration, when I wrote the Aspertools book, was my daughter, Rebecca. Your inspiration, I understand as your granddaughter Megan, and we would like to hear all about how that whole thing got you where you are today?

KB

Well, its probably the joy of my life. Actually, I have 12 grandchildren, two daughters–one with eight, one with four. Maggie was born with Down Syndrome, her name is Maggie, and shes now 11-years-old. So when Maggie came into our life, I didnt really know anything about Down Syndrome, I was running my husbands medical practice at the time, so–she was four, and my daughter says, you know mom, youre a business woman–why dont you make clothes for people with Down Syndrome? Thats how it started. And I laughed. I didnt know a thing about clothes, I didnt know a think about Down Syndrome, I just love Maggie and I didnt know there was any difference in her body shape, so I went home that day, after I laughed at her, and I said Ill just buy something online. So I started searching the internet for something for someone with Down Syndrome, nothing. Nothing available, anywhere. And then I started looking at adaptive wear, oh my gosh. There were velcrow capes and velcrow skirts. I was apalled at what was available for someone who had a disability. Well, I am an entrepreneur, Ive been an entrepreneur since 1986, had my own business, ran my husbands medical practice and then–this brain was really just going and I had a seamstress in our practice, and I talked to her and I go, why dont we just go buy clothes and then shorten them? Cause I knew everything was just too long for Maggie. Well, I started–through our patients, and talking to people who had children with Down Syndrome, I met another seamstress who said, oh thatll never work. So I called a design school in cleveland and I started talking to some of the teachers, and they said, well youll need to hire a designer, and youll have to get fit models, they call them, and actually design clothes on them. Well, I called the–the gave me the name of a young lady, her name is Jillian Jencovsky, and we have been together for six years now –we found models–we started with adults, and I went to the bank–I thought I was going to make this entire wardrobe of clothes, believe me, I had visions of–I walked into the bank, we had great credit, I go, you know, can I get about $500,000? I want to make this clothing line for people with Down Syndrome, and I was very, very naive–so I–I came out with my feet on the ground–so I go well what can I make if I made one thing? So I said, everybody needs a great pair of jeans. So we started with jeans and we found our models and it took about six months to actually design the eight styles of jeans for men and women.

HR

We also want to know, through your perspective, your feelings and thoughts and insights about Down Syndrome, too?

KB

I tell you, I am a worlds’ expert on their bodies, and not many people can say that, because no one in the world has ever done this and I literally shipped all over the world. I have a customer in Iceland. So I feel this part of what I do–because six years ago I was uneducated and now I have really become an expert in the challenge of fitting their clothes and how they–how they feel emotionally about having a pair of pants that they can dress independently and they can feel good about themselves, they can dress like their big brother or sister, or they can dress like their peers at school–how it affects their self-esteem and their self-worth, its just utterly amazing. I have an expression, I say, “Were changing lives one pair of jeans at a time.” And every customer, for me, is that most important person. I contact every new customer personally. I speak with them, I find out about their child or adult child, or someone in their care–I want to know about that person and how our jeans have effected them. You know, some dont want to send them back when they need hem–some have wanted to sleep in them–they cant–thats all they will wear. Period. They wont wear anything else, because, for the first time in their life, something is comfortable. I mean if were wearing mis-fitting clothes, and people with Down Syndrome are really stuck wearing mis-fitting clothes–its not comfortable. I mean I dont like wearing clothes that arent comfortable. So when they have something that actually fits their body shape, and their body shape is very different–they have a very short femur. An average adult has about a 22-23 inch seam, and they can be very round. They have low muscle tone, which makes holding in their tummies very, very challenging. They can be on lots of different medications that can cause weight gain and I can tell you that there is something around puberty that, if a child with Down Syndrome is thinner and smaller, at some point around 9, 10, 11-years-old, they just start to expand. It happened to my granddaughter, she was nine-years-old, and she went–in three months, gained 25 pounds. She went from a little tiny petite little child into this little round child now who is just more for me to love. So this is–by mothers telling me this story, yes, my child was very small when they were young and now they can be very large. Theyre never very tall due to that short femur. So their knee actually–the knee on a typical pair of pants tapers at about 14-inches, but a person with Down syndrome, our pants are about seven inches, so you can see that when you cut them off at like 22 inches, theres no shape to those pair of pants. They look like a stove-pipe on their legs.

So just altering a typical pair of pants doesnt solve their problem, but by shaping it to their body shape or their knee-tapers, now they look thinner, it fits, their shortness is not as noticeable. And then when we first started, we realized those tummies–when they would push everything under their tummies, so Jill and I talked very, very early on that we needed to design a style that went under their bellies but covered their backside. So we designed a style, we call it our “Dip-down,” and about 90% of all of our sales are the “Dip-down,” in the Downs Designs brand. So this keeps their behind covered, because if theyre pushing everything down in the front, guess what? Everything is coming down in the back and exposing things that dont need to be seen. So our parents are very appropriate for them to wear. And when they cant do the buttons and zippers because they have difficulty with fine motor skills, most wear sweatpants. So our jeans must have denim thats very stretchy. Because we dont have a button or zipper, they have to pull them on and we need all the stretch that we can get, and also, because if theyre used to wearing soft-fabric like sweatpants, change is not an easy thing for a person with Down syndrome, so if we were to put them in like a hard denim, they wouldnt wear it. So this way, theyre wearing a soft, stretchy denim, very comfortable, easy to dress themselves, and they look absolutely cool. I mean my jeans are just as stylish as anything that you would get at any store. So I started that in 2010, it took us four years to design all of our styles, from ages–two and up, I didn’t do little baby clothes because I felt that they needed the proper length when they start walking, and typically, all of the kids need to roll their pants up, they roll their sleeves up, because this bone is also very short, so that’s why I started at about age two. Now, in 2014 I realized that there was this massive population of people, about 20% of our adult population is disabled, and men and boys cannot find pull-on jeans that look good. I mean there is adaptive-wear out there but its not very attractive.

HR

Do you want to say that again–do you want to say that again, that 20% of our adult population is disabled?

KB

Yes, adult population. And there are 3 million children in our schools who are disabled. Because now these children are mainstream and they are in public schools, so 3 million children in schools, 20% of our adult population–now, women can find pull-on jeans. We wear jeggins, we wear all–so theres no buttons or zippers, so I did not want to even try to compete with womens’ clothing. So when I came out with standard sized jeans for men–

HR

This is for the NBZ now? Now were talking about the NBZ?

KB

The NBZ brand. I started that in 2014. So then, when I got the mens’ all manufactured, I go, theres all these children and these boys, like we talked about, 1 out of 45 births, autistic–5 to 1 are boys. Even an eight year old boy might still be struggling with his zipper. So we started our boys line and we started about size eight. Younger children can probably find pull-on pants if theyre a boy, but as they start to get older–that eight-years-old, you cant find something without a zipper. So NBZ was born in 2014. So in 2015 my dream was actually to be a non-profit. So we filed for our non-profit status in January of 2015 and it took us three months to get our determination, so I was very proud of that fact. Writing all of that paper work, I had to have a board–it was–it changed everything. Now, I am not the founder, I am not the owner, I am now the executive director of a non-profit organization, a 501(c)(3). So what can we do–what do we do as a non-profit? We advocate, we educate and we donate. So we started a program called adopt-a-jean Friday, and we get donors to donate to our adopt-a-jean projects for our veterans and for our–anyone who needs a pair of jeans, anyone who tells me they cant afford a pair of jeans. And what we want to do is educate, so they go to our website and fill out our application, our entry form–and they must tell us their story of the person they nominate. What is their struggle, and then how would these jeans make a difference?

So we–everyone who writes us in the United States, we have honored every single submission, and we have people that donate, and we also love it when children or church groups or schools have a service project or community service project that they need to do. We love it when they do our adopt-a-jean program. So what they do is, on our website, all of the instructions, how to do it, and then the education part is their struggles. This is their body differences, this is why they cant do zippers, this is why they cant hold in their tummies and so if these children will take, like–you know, older children, teenagers, want to take on a project, but now maybe they will understand. A) Why a person with Down syndrome dresses different, or why they dont look like other kids or why theyre wearing sweatpants every day–so they can go do a fundraiser, they can raise money and then if theres children or friends in their church group or their school that they want donate our pants to, thats who we give them to.

HR

Tell our audience who want to get involved how they get in touch? What are your websites, what are your phone numbers, how do they find you, how do they get in touch with you?

KB

Well they can go to our website. Our company is now–our non-profit is called Downs Designs Dreams, and our website is www.downsdesignsdreams.org Downs with an ‘S’, designs with an ‘S,’ and dreams with an ‘S.’ DownsDesignsDreams.org. Our toll-free number is (877) 390-4851. On the website, the adopt-a-jean section. There is a Downs Designs section, an NBZ section and a get involved in our adopt-a-jean program. That’s–we have a program for our veterans and for our non-veterans. So donations, we love them, because then we get to give more jeans away. We also are in the process of making our dress pants, so any help for that–we are bringing in about 10,000 pants probably by the end of July, were going to have our dress pants in black and khaki available, and Im going to have them ready for school–you know, kids need their khakis for school–I just cant wait to get into our dress pants. So thats kind of an exciting time here at Downs Designs Dreams.

HR

How do you get all of this manufactured?

KB

Pardon me?

HR

How do all of the pants get made?

KB

Early on, I called all over the United States, and I was told, “Honey, jeans are not made in the United States.” Click! And our jeans are so unusual–I actually went online and I found a company in China, I went to China–I go to China all the time, I go every time we make pants. I have been studying chinese for four years. Dont understand what they say, but I have a teacher in China on Skype, 5 days a week, because where I go, no one speaks english except the son of the factory owner. These people have been so wonderful to me. They had no idea what these pants were when I went there, they just shook their head, you know–and now they are so good at making them. And I could not sell them–if I had them manufactured in the United States, the price–they would probably cost 2 or $300 to sell, this is true. So I must go overseas, and Im in the factory, I’m very hands-on. I pick every thread, every fabric, and I know who makes our jeans. So I dont feel bad about that, I mean people dont like it that I go to China, but I had no help in the United States, whatsoever. So Im very grateful for the communication and the relationship I have with the factory. They are very, very, very helpful and theyve become really good at making these jeans, because they arent easy.

So thats my China connection, and its very, very important to the production of this business, and now we just got in our samples for the black and khaki, fabulous. Were actually manufacturing the fabric ourselves. It has to be stretchy, it has to be a durable fabric, and were working with a lot of the veterans. Billy–you know, William, our–I have a veteran here, his name is William and he’s a Navy vet, and hes so passionate and so–his mission is to just help our veterans, and thats what–were trying to really reach out to the veterans. We want to be able to donate, we want to be able to do more to help them. We might be working on something with a zipper in the leg that might help with a prosthetic. Right now, someone is missing an arm or a hand, how is that poor guy pulling up his zipper? And, you know, people are so concerned about–theyre trying to get back into society, their life has changed, theyve lost some limb, you know a hand or an arm, and it really makes it challenging to dress, but is anyone really thinking about what theyre wearing. Theyre typically wearing sweat pants. Thats something that is just so typical for someone who cant do a zipper, and if they need a job, they need a black pair of pants or khaki or something more dressy than a pair of jeans, and that is just huge for us right now. Thats kind of everything in a nutshell.

HR

People dont stop to consider that the reason–forgetting Down syndrome and veterans and people with handicaps, there is a reason that the design industry is so huge throughout the world–its because people, whether rightly or wrongly, get a large sense of their self-esteem and their self-worth by how they dress. I was never afflicted with such concerns as you can tell by the way I dress, but that is a big, big thing, and why not have everybody feel as good as they want to feel in the clothes that they want to be in and to be able to have the luxury of being able to put on your own clothes, to maximize your independence. Your brain may be a little bit different or you might have certain other physical disabilities. What youre doing, Karen Bowersox, at your NBZ and at your Downs Designs Dreams, is making these dreams come true for so many different kinds of people. Now i had the privilege of giving a keynote address with Tim Shriver at the Special Olympics last summer, at the AADMD meetings, and are you affiliated, are you in contact with a lot of the different neurodiversity and Down syndrome and autism organizations?

KB

Well, we try. Its harder than you think. We reach out to them. You know, i used to do all of the conferences at the National Down Syndrome conference. We did last year–I do the Buddy Walk every year, we have about 4,000 come to the Buddy Walk in Cleveland, Ohio, and Ive been there every year. Last year we did an autism walk. We had a famous football player as the host and his daughter has autism. We try, because we want more people to know about us because if people knew I was here, they would be in touch with me. The problem is, you know, funding. We dont have a lot of money for marketing. Thats one thing that, oh my gosh, I wish I could get on Ellen and get out there and tell our story so people would know Im here. Theres so much more we could do if people knew I was here.

HR

Why dont you tell people one more time, Karen Bowersox, how they can get ahold of you and where they can find you and your products?

KB

Our website is www.DownsDesignsDreams.org and that website contains our NBZ brand and our Downs Designs brand and our adopt-a-jean program. So all of our information can be found on one website. Our telephone number, we have a toll-free number, is (877) 390-4851 and I am here five days a week, William is here, we are here to help. If you have questions about how to order, call us. We will walk you through the entire process.

HR

Well thats great. Can you give us an update on Maggie? How is Maggie doing, your granddaughter who inspired you?

KB

Maggie is now 11-years-old, she turned 11 last month. She goes to public school, she was just in a play, she is just such a special child. Maggie–she walks into a room and just lights up the room. Like I can tell you that her siblings–they change the whole family. The siblings are different, theyre better children, theyre more understanding, theyre more patient, theyre kinder, and anyone who has a relative in their family with a special need, it makes such a difference to the whole family, and it changes their whole life. And how you deal with that and what you do with that in your life, its so inspiring and so–just so wonderful. I love every minute of her and everything that she’s added to my life and what I can do to help her. If I can grow our line of Downs Designs clothes and go into shirts and coats–they have so many dressing challenges, that maybe one day, she will have one less challenge in her life, and thats my goal.

HR

You know, Im going to put you in touch with someone who is nice enough to visit our office with her son Taylor. Kimberly Ahlum, who wrote the book “Fighting For Taylor,” and Taylor is a fine young man who happens to have Down syndrome and autism. Bright young guy, too. And thats what also strikes me at different brains, that nothing occurs in isolation. Everything has different components of all the different things, and I found that as I was writing the Aspertools book, whether you talk about anxiety and all of these different things, plus the tools that we can use to help the individuals cope with it, and its funny how youve engaged our brains today to consider something I didnt think of.

KB

Right.

HR

Getting on your pants.

KB

Thats my mission–education. Education is so important. Any time I can explain these differences, thats one less person that can look at a person and say, jeez, dont their parents know how to dress that child? And this goes on every day. Every day. And if they understood that they cant find clothes, then they would have a different opinion of that family, and its a shame because we are often judged on our first appearance. So if I can change that, thats part of my mission. Part of my mission to educate.

HR

You know, and that–you may think this has nothing to do with this but what you just said resonates so much, in the sense that they dont think about, well, why cant that child be dressed nicely, it must be poor parenting. And I just had the privilege of giving the first ever neurodiversity lectures in March at the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, in Orlando, and I said to them, now, remember that kid in your office, who was screaming when you took out the cast saw and you thought it was poor parenting and the kid was a spoiled kid? No, that kid had hyper-senses, maybe on the spectrum with autism, Asperger’s, what ever–and you could have saved yourself a lot of trouble had you used a plaster cast and had them soak it off, because the hyper-senses are going to make them absolutely out of their mind. With the vibration and the sound and the fluorescent lights, its tough–in the same way, when people see someone with Down syndrome, and they dont realize the orthopedic anatomical difference, such as the shortened femur and so-forth. And you know, we dont have any consciousness. So if we can start to get people, in general, to look through the prism of were all made differently. Lets try to give each other the help we need so that we can maximize our productivity, our independence with such tasks as getting on a pair of pants, you know? Whatever we can do to help people get jobs, to help people find housing, all of these things are related, and you, Karen, have enlightened us greatly today, on we have to do it in the design of the clothes, and thats where your companies come in and keep up the great work and were going to do our best here to help mainstream what youre doing.

KB

I appreciate it. And any opportunity I can get to share this story, I am always willing. I love to educate others. Its really–its just such a passion of mine is to try to help people have more understanding, and if I can fix it, you know, if I can fix it, you know, theres just so much I can do. I have so much work to be done. You know, im 67 years old. If anyone says its too late, its never too late. You know? This came into my life, I would have never dreamed seven years ago that I would be in this position right now and that I would have this knowledge and this experience and this impact on people’s lives. Were never too old, were never too old.

HR

Well, you look much younger than that and you act much younger and most importantly, youre doing great things. Well that brings us to the end of another episode of Exploring Different Brains. Im Dr. Hackie Reitman, today weve been speaking with Karen Bowersox and she has her two companies, DownsDesignsDreams.org and NBZ which is on that same website. Karen, thank you very much. Keep up the great work.

KB

Thank you for having me, its been a pleasure.

 

 

This video is owned by Different Brains Inc, kindly donated by it’s original producer PCE Media LLC.

Author Image
Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman is the founder of DifferentBrains.com. He is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, children’s activist, retired orthopaedic surgeon, and a former professional heavyweight boxer. He who currently serves as the CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based PCE Media, LLC, the multi-platform production company he founded in 2004. Dr. Reitman wrote, executive produced and co-directed the full-length independent film, “The Square Root of 2” (starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC’s “Scandal”), and is the author of the book “Aspertools: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity” from HCI Publishing. He also hosts the DifferentBrains.com interview show “Exploring Different Brains.”
Author Image

Harold Reitman, M.D.

Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman is the founder of DifferentBrains.com. He is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, children’s activist, retired orthopaedic surgeon, and a former professional heavyweight boxer. He who currently serves as the CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based PCE Media, LLC, the multi-platform production company he founded in 2004. Dr. Reitman wrote, executive produced and co-directed the full-length independent film, "The Square Root of 2" (starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC's "Scandal"), and is the author of the book "Aspertools: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity" from HCI Publishing. He also hosts the DifferentBrains.com interview show “Exploring Different Brains.”

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