In 2018, Erica Cole’s life changed when she lost her leg in a car accident. A year into the healing process and still adjusting to her first prosthesis, Cole found herself confronting an unexpected frustration — she couldn’t find clothes that fit both her personality and her prosthetic leg. But rather than allow adversity to dictate her day, the then-research chemist started on a new path, one with no limits.
“I started installing zippers into my pants and it made a huge difference. It sounds really simple but just being able to wear jeans again instead of track shorts or sweatpants made me feel a little more like myself.”
Drawing on her college hobby designing costumes, Cole soon found herself adapting not just her own pants, but clothing items for friends and other members of her new amputee community. It quickly became clear to Cole that her functional creations had the potential to make many people’s lives easier and brighter. And so she launched No Limbits, a fashionable clothing line for people who struggle with clothing due to a disability.
After graduating, Cole left the chemistry lab and her “former dream job” behind. She had earned a spot in the Target Incubator Program, where she began work to bring No Limbits to the next level.
“We started out altering clothes by hand. You can alter clothes to work for people, but there are things that you can’t really alter into a garment that would just serve people better if it was made that way from the beginning,” says Cole. “For example, with the shape of our pants for amputees, we can alter zippers into the pants, which was a big step. But if pants don’t fit around the prosthesis in the first place, the zippers don’t really help.”
Now a fellow at Halcyon — the D.C.-based nonprofit that provides opportunities for early-stage social entrepreneurs to foster scalable, lasting impact in their fields — Cole continues to move the needle forward for No Limbits, with support from a team of advisors including Target’s VP of Clothing and Accessories and Runway of Dreams CEO Mindy Scheier.
“It’s actually cheaper to just produce something that works for people from scratch. We had been trying to make something that doesn’t truly work into something that works. So we decided to shift into producing a ready-to-wear line,” says Cole.
Back at the drawing board, Cole consulted with another team member, a biomedical engineer who brings a practical, occupational therapy perspective to their product development, along with more than 300 amputees and prosthetists to determine what features would make No Limbits’ fashions as inclusive as possible.
“Our goal is really for people to most easily dress themselves. And so when we design we think about it, instead of designing for a caretaker, we think, ‘what’s going to make it easiest for the end user?’” Cole explains.
No Limbits’ first ready-to-wear product line is a pant made specifically for leg amputees, available in men’s, women’s and gender-neutral styles. One of the milestones Cole plans to achieve while at Halcyon is to launch the line on Kickstarter, in order to help fund future scaled-up production.
“I still kind of can’t believe I’m here,” Cole says of the Halcyon experience. She is inspired by the metrics of success for social impact businesses, which, she says, are not about the bottom line profit. Instead, in directing No Limbits, Cole thinks about business success on several levels — in terms of the overall number of people she can impact, potential for connection with targeted communities like veterans programs, giving back to the community that helped her, and, most importantly, how individuals are affected.
“When you think about your morning routine, when the first step is a challenge, it just sets the tone for the rest of the day. So on an individual level, is someone able to dress themselves in the morning without feeling frustration? Can I help cross one challenge off the list of challenges of being an amputee? That’s success,” she says.
Fittingly, Cole has big dreams for No Limbits. In the next few years, she sees her company evolving into a kind of Old Navy or Gap, one that appeals to a wide age-range, is fun and positive, and doesn’t feel “medical” — a place where anybody can find something that works specifically for them, at an accessible price point.
“The vision is for No Limbits to be an adaptive brand that just exudes inclusivity, no matter what you’re struggling with,” Cole says.
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