Making a Difference: Karen Bowersox and Downs Designs
Karen Bowersox and Downs Designs
If Necessity is the “Mother of Invention”, perhaps adversity can be the “Grandmother of Invention”, so to speak. In this case, adversity led to a pathway for greater things. It can also be a motivating factor in someone’s life that leads them in a new direction with a renewed sense of purpose. This was exactly the case when Karen Bowersox accepted a “challenge” from her daughter.
Karen has been happily married to her husband, Dr. Harold Bowersox, for 25 years. She was running his medical practice and was a proud wife, mother and grandmother. Ten years ago, her granddaughter, Maggie, was born with Down syndrome and when Maggie turned 4, Karen’s daughter (Maggie’s Mom) challenged her to start a clothing line for people with Down syndrome. So, Karen went home and simply thought she would buy Maggie something online. She came up empty handed with her searches. That was the beginning of a journey that would change her life and the lives of so many others as well. So, what does one do if you have absolutely no background in the clothing industry? How do you go about undertaking the challenge of starting a clothing company? For Karen, she reached out to her local design school for advice. They suggested that she hire a designer and gave her the name of a young graduate named Jillian. She and Karen have been working together ever since and in 2010, Downs Designs® was born.
Karen explains, “We found models to use to design our jeans and now have created 18 styles from toddlers to adults. We worked with our models for months on end and learned about their special needs in clothing. We started with jeans and designed our jeans to solve so many of the dressing challenges they face. In fact, one of the biggest challenges we noticed early on was how they don’t like to wear their clothes around their waists. They push everything under their tummies, leaving pants often hanging low in the crotch and then exposing their backsides. We resolved this problem with a style we created called our ‘dip downs’. They sit low under the tummy but completely cover their bottoms in the back”.
As with any endeavor, you learn more about the industry and the needs of the clients you serve. Karen understands this and continued to explain, “people with Down syndrome may have difficulty with fine motor skills, so all our jeans have an elastic waistband, no button, zipper or tag and the denim is soft and stretchy, making them easy to pull up and down independently. Individuals with Down syndrome also have a shorter femur so our custom designed jeans are tapered properly to fit their unique body shape. Due to their shorter inseams, each pair is hemmed to order. We offer a home ‘try-on’ service with every new customer, giving them the opportunity to try them on in the privacy of their own homes and making sure they get the perfect fit every time”.
Pretty close is not close enough
Karen’s company receives daily emails, texts, phone calls and letters from customers thanking them for changing and improving the lives of so many by the clothing the company makes. As Karen sums up, “Words can’t describe the rewarding feeling you get when you know you are making a difference in someone’s life. Who would have thought that just a pair of jeans could be so important to someone? All that we’ve learned from our customers makes us want to do more to help them. There is so much work left to be done, and we can’t wait to see where this journey will take us”.
A lot of companies might be content to “rest on their laurels”, but, for this entrepreneur, a simple core value is at the heart of the company. While the company does design and manufacture its clothing, Karen sees herself in a service business, too. “I think our service is the core of everything we stand for. Each and every customer is our most important. Getting our clothes to fit perfectly is our goal and having them look and feel their best and to allow them the independence and dignity they deserve is what we strive for every day”. She goes on to say, “Our try-on service allows each customer to be guaranteed ‘just the right fit’. We won’t accept ‘it’s a pretty close fit’…we want it to be perfect. We love the smiles we see on their faces when they post their pictures on our Facebook page. We are constantly sharing their photos and stories. We know the name of everyone who wears our jeans; we know how old they are and how they feel in a pair of jeans from us. We take time with everyone to find out what their needs are and how we can be of service. We make designer clothes that are custom fit, and it’s a true labor of love”.
A company Not-for-Profit
When we asked Karen about her company, her response was not simply a typical explanation of “I saw a need and I acted on it”. She has a very real connection to her company’s product and takes a very personal approach to describing it. “One of the major reasons I decided to become a non-profit corporation is my strong desire to make a difference. What I have learned from working with these amazing people is that their clothing challenges are a huge part of their life. They need a voice, they need for people to be educated, as I have now become, as to how hard life can be when nothing fits. One comes to learn how self-esteem and independence are taken away when a parent has to choose between style and independence. Being able to go to the bathroom without assistance often means wearing sweatpants every day to school, for example. Other kids may be cruel and make fun and sometimes adults can be judgmental, thinking that their parents don’t care enough to dress them properly”.
In addition, through the non-profit organization, Karen has created a wonderful program to educate school age children about the difficulties those with disabilities face regarding clothing. She calls the program, “Adopt-A-Jean™” and it’s explained on the company’s website. Her hope is that through awareness we build acceptance. Furthermore, in an effort to get her products into the homes of as many people as possible that will benefit from them, she has created a program called “Adopt-A-Jean Friday”. Currently, the company gives a pair of jeans away every Friday to someone. They have people write in and nominate a person to receive their jeans. The clients have to tell their stories and how Downs Design jeans would make a difference. Then they share the stories on their site and on social media. This is another way to educate and build awareness. Karen explains it this way, “I think the struggles of parents who have a special needs child can create financial challenges. There may be many health care expenses, or one parent may not be able to work because they have to stay home and take care of the child. This can create a financial problem and our jeans may be difficult for some to purchase. But, through our Adopt-A-Jean™ program, we hope to be donating our jeans to many more families”.
Speaking of Dream…
In a “perfect world”, Karen has a desire to create a clothing line that provides the best fitting and most stylish jeans and pants. She wants to expand the line to include dress shirts, blouses, coats and shorts to name a few. And simply put, Karen would like to make the dressing challenges of those with special needs a thing of the past. Karen put it this way, “Our goals are simple: we want to continue to create more solutions for the clothing challenges that are sadly overlooked in the fashion world. We hope to continue to be a voice for those that need to be heard. We hope to expand our options and continue to improve what we are already doing. We hope that through our efforts others will step up and join this journey to make a difference in peoples lives. When I think of the future, I see a huge warehouse, with guys on tow motors, unloading trucks every day. I see the shipping and receiving department busy packaging orders for shipment and putting away the latest truckload. I hear the hum of sewing machines down the hall in the alteration room where our amazing seamstresses are busy hemming and ironing the latest orders that just came back from the try-on service. I’m very confident that by using what I’ve learned throughout this journey, along with additional support, we will make this dream a reality!”