Louisa Summerfield & Rheumatoid Arthritis: Fashion for Women in Wheelchairs
Louisa Summerfield, 43, has turned what many see as adversity into an advantage. Diagnosed at age 9 with severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she started using a wheelchair in her early teens. Not finding what she was looking for in comfortable, fashionable clothes, she founded WheelieChix-Chic in 2007, offering clothes and lingerie for women who use wheelchairs and for able-bodied women. Based in the UK, she has participated in Abilities Expo which took her to several cities in the U.S. as part of Chloe Magazine's Dare to Change the World Fashion Showcase. She returns with her Fall Collection in Abilities Expo's 2010 show.
I recently reached Louisa in Stockholm where she's setting up WheelieChix-Chic's European office for the Nordic region.
How is your current relationship with RA?
RA in my joints has burnt out, however, in my late 20s I was diagnosed with vasculitis. I had no idea that RA could affect veins, arteries and major organs. During that time, I had high inflammation yet no joint pain and was also extremely ill, very thin, aneamic and had ulcers on my feet. The doctors were not optimistic I would live very long and I was put onto cytoxic medication and a high dose of prednisolone.
Today I seem to be in total remission. I just take 1 mg of prednisolone. My disease is under control but I have other problems as a result of drug side effects such as 50% kidney function and kidney stones.
You're a single mom and run your own business. Could you tell us about your kids and how you manage your fatigue, pain, etc., with everything else?
I had my my son at age 30..At six months I got ill with chronic kidney infections and he was born eight weeks early. He has a severe learning disability and will need care for the rest of his life. I had my daughter when I was 33. This pregnancy was totally different, my daughter was born on time and at a good weight. Despite my hip replacements, both children were born the natural way and during labour, I didn't take any pain relievers but I do meditate and this worked for me. My children are my inspiration.
I've always been a determined person with a high threshold for pain, but the minute I was divorced something kicked in -- a new sense of independence and the realization that my two children depended solely on me. So it's a case of just getting on with it. I've had carers to help me in my everyday life, including helping me with my children. There has been down times when I've struggled to get enough energy to drive them to school or look happy when I'm feeling ill, but somehow you just get through it.
I enjoy a busy life -- I can't sit for very long and not get bored, so the chaotic lifestyle of kids, one with special needs, business, events, dating, etc., now just seem normal to me. My rest time is the occasional weekend away without my children and without my laptop. Keeping busy, I believe, keeps me healthy.
What inspired you to start WheelieChix-Chic and how did you take it from idea to reality?
I've always loved fashion and wanted to combine my experience as a disabled woman with my passion for fashion. I also feel greatly rewarded by listening to disabled women when they tell me they feel more confident, sexy and alive because of my collections.
I had some extra money saved from a property sale and poured every penny into the business so we could have a fantastic launch, which we did in ‘07 with so much media attention from all around the world. I also employed experts in marketing and project management.
How do you choose the clothes and designers you use?
I create the designs myself, taking an existing design and altering it.and work closely with a manufacturer. The exclusive collection this year is from a Miami designer, Nikki Poulos, who I met on a photo shoot.
What makes the clothes especially relevant for women who use wheelchairs?
Your body shape is different when sitting and upper body detail becomes very important as this is what people focus on when they are talking to you. We have details on collars or cuffs or eccentric prints. Our designs have extra room in the shoulders so you have flexibility when wheeling. Shirt cuffs can be buttoned back or a favourite is three-quarter length sleeves that stay away from muddy rims. We use easy fastenings such as snaps for buttons. A lot of our latest designs have no fastenings at all just wider necklines and very stretchy fabric.
This year, WheelieChix-Chic has participated in Abilities Expo. Can you tell us more about that?
It was organized through Chloe Magazine, a new American magazine for disabled women. They asked me to exhibit my collections in a fashion show. I attended the New Jersey show in April, but the collection, along with other designers, went to L.A., Chicago and Atlanta. All shows had volunteer disabled models.
Who are your models used in your shows and on your Web page?
All of my models except the lingerie models are wheelchair users, some have MS, others are paralyzed and Alice Friel on my website has RA. Some people have written to me complaining I don't have genuine disabled girls because all of them look so hot, they are shocked when I tell them all are in a chair except for the lingerie model.
What will your Fall collection be like and when will it come out?
It's out now! One part is more urban/boho chic everyday wear with lots of chunky knits and muted colours combined with vintage wear. The second part is from our Miami designer Nikki Poulos. Suses luxury, stretch jersey rayon and pure organic silk. It's simple yet has vibrant and eccentric prints, vivid colours and is full of energy.
What would you say to people thinking about creating their own business?
Firstly, you do need a lot of energy and determination in order to see your dream become a reality.Secondly, you do need to make sacrifices and plan your budget well, I made many mistakes and spent far too much.