By Alyssa Schoeneman, AEL Intern
Carlton Bruett is a man who wears many hats – and they are all of his own design.
Bruett, a University of Illinois MFA alumnus in Graphic Design, has also founded two businesses. CarltonBruettDesign, Bruett’s graphic design company, has been in existence for more than 20 years – Bruett recently designed program materials for the Academy’s Startup Illinois 2011 event – and his most recent venture, CarltonBruettClothes, is still in the early stages of development.
With the help of the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Illinois, Bruett has created a clothing company that caters to the physically disabled community. Bruett’s designs include men’s suits, women’s dresses and much more.
Bruett explained that he was inspired by his uncle, who was injured in a car accident; Bruett and his brothers often helped to dress their uncle, in an effort to help him to manage his disability.
“I found that there were a lot of fashion barriers for people with disabilities,” Bruett said. “My uncle’s feet were two different sizes, in some cases he had to buy two pairs of shoes. Because half of his body was paralyzed, [my uncle] also couldn’t bend his arms through clothing.”
But Bruett’s uncle had a positive outlook on his situation; he used fashion to express himself.
“My uncle impressed upon us that he knew people were going to look at him, so he wanted to give them something good to look at,” Bruett said. “He was cognizant of his look; we were all inspired and encouraged by his perseverance.”
Bruett’s designs aim to empower the physically disabled community by easing the process of buying clothes and getting dressed, and by adapting to specific mobility needs. For example, a man’s suit that is being worn by someone using a wheelchair would have more freedom across the chest; this accounts for the rowing motion associated with driving a wheelchair, Bruett explained.
But CarltonBruettClothes designs are not solely about function – they look good, too. Bruett’s designs target a younger demographic of the disabled community, a group that Bruett said is often misunderstood and overlooked by mass retailers.
“Most of the clothes out there are targeted toward an older demographic; the younger population is lumped into the mainstream by retailers,” Bruett explained. “We have the opportunity to provide people with clothing options that allow them to express themselves through beautiful, functional forms.”
CarltonBruettClothes is currently “just beyond” the prototype phase of development and is working on launching an informational website, Bruett said. The company is also reaching out to potential investors.
“We want to be a fashion portal of sorts…a retail clothing environment, where a dialogue about clothing options and personal needs can be discussed. We also want to be a web-source or advertising platform for companies that provide unique goods and services to the disabled population,” Bruett said.
In April 2011, CarltonBruettClothes co-sponsored a fashion show with The Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES); the show was entitled “A Fashion-Able Fundraiser: Celebrating Ability at Illinois,” and was held on the University of Illinois campus.
“We showcased some of our designs and highlighted the work of students involved in accessibility on campus,” Bruett said. “I was particularly impressed with the diversity of the audience. We had folks with a variety of disabilities – students, educators, and members from the health care and business communities. It was very well-attended.”
Bruett said that he has gotten an “overwhelmingly positive” response from the general public, and that he is grateful for the help he has received from the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership’s Illinois Launch program.
“The staff at the Academy has helped me formalize my business ideas by providing a structure that is fluid and linear; they have provided a variety of resources that speak to each phase of business development,” Bruett explained. “The Academy has an amazing staff and provides a non-threatening environment in which businesses can grow.”
Bruett also noted that he was supported by members of his fellow Illinois Launch start-ups throughout his business development process.
“In our meetings and classroom experiences, all of the students were open to sharing ideas and giving feedback,” Bruett said. “They are all really pulling for each other; it’s a positive environment where ideas flourish and where students are encouraged to be brilliant.”
And when these entrepreneurs’ qualities of brilliance and innovation help the broader community, as they do in Bruett’s case, everyone wins.