Thursday, November 23, 2017

'We're the custom tailor for people who use wheelchairs'

Koolway co-founders Jennifer Gallienne and John Cook with head cutter, sewer and pattern designer Vienna Liu.

By Louise Kinross

Jennifer Gallienne is co-founder of Koolway Sports, a premium Canadian line of coats, capes, boots and mitts designed for children and adults who use wheelchairs.

“Our outerwear is for people in wheelchairs who want to go out and enjoy life and be warm, comfortable and dry,” Jennifer says. “The reason people come to us is they can't find anything off the rack that has zippers in the sleeves—to make it easy to put on and take off—a half back for comfort, shoulder openings for chair straps, and little g-tube openings. 

“We work with every body shape. We work with children who use traches, and can't have fleece in the top of their coat. In one of our focus groups, a woman said that while she was running, the blanket she had on her child in the stroller kept falling off. I sat on the floor with her and drew a picture of a blanket with a zipper, like a bunting bag, and said 'Is this what you want?' That's how our product is developed—through parents, or the person in the chair, telling us what they need and want.”

Jennifer runs Koolway out of a home studio in Whitby, where she works with a team of professional industrial sewers who make the coats. “We're paying top wages and buying top-of-the line fabrics and notions from Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Colorado. We make quality coats that last 10 years.”

Koolways sells its products worldwide, with about 75 per cent of orders coming through its website, says co-founder John Cook, who is also president. Before taking an order, Koolway asks customers to watch a video on how to take six key measurements, then confirms sizing on Skype or Facetime, so that they can see the customer’s wheelchair and make recommendations. They also do in-home fittings or group fittings at schools, Holland Bloorview, Variety Village and Whitby Ability Centre.

The adaptations in the coat are designed to reduce dressing time from 20 minutes to two minutes, John says. “For parents and school caregivers, that frees up a lot of time.” The company's most popular product is its winter coat with a detachable front and back blanket. It costs $510 to $760, based on features.

“Our main challenge is the lack of government grants for families who can't afford them,” says John. “If a family doesn't have the resources, we'll try to work with them. We'll contact third parties. Variety International recently authorized our product in some regions as eligible for funding. Sometimes we may have a family within our circle whose child has outgrown their coat, and they may ‘angel gift’ it to another family. We've reached out to Easter Seals, but they raise funds for other items.”

Koolway is partnering with parent-run foundations Three To Be and Peaceful Hearts Georgina, as well as Ability Online, to “matchmake” families who can benefit from a gently-used coat, Jennifer says. “If only people realized that a coat is a necessity.”

Jennifer began Koolway after losing her job as a graphic designer at age 40.

Like the “connector” personality described in Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, Jennifer had a knack for knowing people, and using these connections to develop her business idea.

Jennifer's cousin was a seamstress. A parent had asked her to custom-make a coat for her son who used a wheelchair. “I knew dressing was a struggle for people with disabilities, and I said let's go into business,” Jennifer recalls.

As a graphic artist in Toronto, Jennifer had worked in the Fashion District in Toronto. “I used to sit on the street car with Agnus, who was a pattern maker for a high-end designer in my building. I picked up the phone and called Agnus to see if she would design some patterns for us. Do you remember those bug shirts that are made for people who go into the woods at their cottages? I called up the bug shirt man and picked his brain about where he manufactured his products in Toronto. I had to learn everything by trial and error and I did that, picking up the phone and asking people.”

One of the people Jennifer called was John, a neighbour who’d volunteered with Special Olympics when he worked in insurance in Calgary. “It was a Wednesday night and I was watching Dragon’s Den and I got a phone call from Jennifer saying ‘I’ve got a business, would you like to see what we’re doing?” John says. “They needed a friendly dragon and that was me.”

Recently, Koolway reached an agreement with George Brown College’s Fashion Exchange Program to have students help them plot, grade and digitize a cape, so that it eliminates cardboard patterns. “I had no idea this Fashion Exchange existed,” Jennifer says, “then I heard Matt Galloway on CBC’s Metro Morning interview the director.” The program trains students to be industrial power sewers, and includes refugees who were skilled sewers from other countries and need to learn Canadian standards. Koolway has placed an order for over 100 capes.

Jennifer describes the business as a labour of love. “We’re the custom tailor for people who use wheelchairs around the world,” John says.