Textile sensitivity, one of the many symptoms of autism, turned into a business opportunity for Jessica E. Ralli and Suzy Kogen Friedman. Rather than watch children wrestle with clothing discomfort day after day, the women started SOFT Clothing. They founded a business that both helps children and creates a profit.
The Birth of SOFT Clothing
SOFT, a clothing company that produces and sells autism-friendly children’s clothing. Ralli, the Director of Soft, remembers what jumpstarted this business opportunity for her. “I was working as a special education teacher with children with sensory disorders. I encountered a large community of parents sharing frustrations on the web that there were few clothing options for their sensory sensitive kids. That sparked the initial idea!”
Her co-founder, Kogen Friedman, remembers that her autistic nephew would remove certain articles of clothing as soon as they were put on him. She began to ask her nephew’s therapists why he might have this clothing aversion. She found out that many children “have a sensory processing disorder (SPD) which makes them extremely sensitive to smells, sounds, and textures. It is just one of the many issues most children on the spectrum have to contend with.”
“Why isn’t someone making clothes that are more comfortable, not just for kids with sensory disorder, but for the mass market?”
While Ralli is a special educator and, by her own admission, “very passionate about inclusion and universal design (the practice of designing a product by which not only the special needs community but the entire community benefits)” Friedman worked in her family’s construction business. It helped her to see a correlation between the business of construction and the business of special needs: “Just like there is a need and niche for housing, there is a need and niche for other products. I did some research as I shopped for my nephew, and I could never find items that wouldn’t bother him. The biggest offenders were tags on the back of shirts, buttons, zippers, and elastic waists. I kept thinking, why isn’t someone making clothes that are more comfortable, not just for kids with sensory disorder, but for the mass market.”
The SOFT product line is a remarkable success for kids on the autism spectrum. Ten-year old Darius has hypersensitivity to clothing. He struggled with this issue his whole life and coped by wearing a “uniform” of women’s pajama pants and an old T-shirt every day. His mom was thrilled when she found the Soft Clothing solution for her son. With autism on the rise by 78% since 2002, the business opportunity to ease the everyday lives of children with autism grows every year.
Neither woman has a background in apparel so they conducted research, made mistakes, and learned as they went.
In spite of the great need for comfortable clothes for children with sensory processing disorder, Kogen Friedman and Ralli ran into a number of hurdles that had to be jumped in order to get their Brooklyn, New York company up and running. Neither woman has a background in the apparel business, notes Ralli, so they learned a lot from their mistakes. In fact, they researched the topic for a full two years before the business even started.
The research, adds Kogen Friendman, included “using surveys, talking to occupational therapists, parents, and the Internet. People were googling and looking for clothing to help their sensory sensitive kids.” Since then, SOFT Clothing has been featured in magazines such as Junior, New York Family, and Special Parent magazine. Because of those parents, Kogen Friedman says, she and Ralli were able to create the specific design principles that have created the major success of this business opportunity. They have been working as a team since 2007.
“It is a combination of all my passions”
Both Ralli and Kogen Friedman are happy that they started the business and justifiably proud of its success. “Glad couldn’t adequately define how we feel about making SOFT a reality,” says Kogen Friedman. We get letters from moms and kids every day, saying what a difference our clothing has made for their child.” Ralli adds, “It is a combination of all my passions. It is so deeply satisfying when I hear from parents, and especially kids, that we make their lives easier in some way.”
It is a challenge for the particularly creative businessperson to create and launch a successful business that will make the lives of people struggling on a daily basis with a condition such as autism or diabetes. If the business is not a success, it will not help anyone. If, however the business is successful like SOFT Clothing, there are endless opportunities for it to help others.