For 12 years, Don Horton was a beloved football coach at Boston College and a hulking 6-foot-4 role model in the sport: preternaturally fit, strong-willed, and unshakeable.
He remained that way even after he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 49, not long after he’d begun coaching at North Carolina State. For a while no one noticed the quiet but persistent tremor in his hands whenever he held a ball or tied his shoelace.
Then came his first defeat: Russell Wilson (now a quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks) saw him fumbling with the buttons on his shirt in the locker room and offered a steady hand.
“I don’t think you ever forget the first time someone tells you they’ve lost their independence,” says Maura Horton, Don’s wife, recalling the incident seven years later.
“I could hear the humiliation in his voice. It was the first time someone had helped him with anything, really.”
She downplayed everything for her husband’s sake and reassured him it wouldn’t happen again. She scoured the Internet for a sartorial solution. But a Google search of clothing for people with limited mobility yielded alarming images of elderly models hunched over walkers.
“I was completely terrified,” Horton tells me, her face flushing at the admission. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that! We were just so young.”
Horton was 38 and couldn’t reconcile these images with her husband’s future: a strong, towering man rapidly reduced to a stooped posture.
Indeed, the transition from a life of athletic accomplishments to one hobbled by an incurable and relentlessly progressive disease was both more complicated and more quotidian than they expected. The simple act of getting dressed became a Herculean task.
“It’s deflating and defeating in a lot of ways,” Maura says. “You wake up and think, ‘Why do I have to struggle with the very first thing I do in the morning?’ You could spend 10 minutes buttoning your shirt and still screw up.”
Dress shirts for people with limited mobility were ill-fitting and poorly made, with a strip of velcro sloppily stitched behind superficial buttons. Don refused to wear them.
The lightbulb moment came one day when Horton was idly fiddling with the magnet clasp on her iPad cover.
She dusted off her sewing machine (her career as a children’s clothing designer had been put on hold when her daughters, now 12 and 7, were born) with renewed urgency, tearing apart her husband’s shirts and stitching tiny magnets into their inseams. Horton secured patents for her magnet-infusing technique; a business was born.
MagnaReady officially launched in 2013 with one shirt style in two colors available for purchase online. Today they offer more than 20 styles in a variety of patterns and colors, and big-name retailers like Bloomingdale’s are eyeing Horton’s product.
Horton isn’t the first entry into fashion and retail markets for people with disabilities who are grossly underserved, if not virtually ignored, in mainstream fashion.
In 1998, fashion designer Alexander McQueen famously collaborated with Dazed & Confused magazine to feature disabled models in his designs. This year saw the first woman with Down’s syndrome to walk the runway—model and American Horror Story actress Jamie Brewer—during designer Carrie Hammer’s show for New York Fashion Week. Models in wheelchairs have been featured in Nordstrom’s catalogues since 1997.
“But Nordstrom’s doesn’t sell any adaptive clothing that they can actually wear,” says Horton, despite the fact that the market is huge.
There are countless fashion blogs and Tumblrs for disabled young women. But retailers are behind, and the market is still wrongly considered niche.
Horton points out that the plus-market was similarly overlooked for a long time, and has been subsumed in the mainstream in the last five years. But she’s hopeful that the limited-mobility market will explode in the mainstream within the next 10 years.
“There are 53 million kids living with disabilities,” she says. Mainstream retailers are only beginning to see a promising investment in creating and selling clothing for this community.
Horton is currently working with “one of the largest shirt companies in the world” (she’s not allowed to say which one) on licensing MagnaReady’s technology. Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer Johnny Bench is a loyal customer.
But her husband’s condition is deteriorating every day.
“He’s definitely progressing down the road and will need much more care as time goes on,” Maura says, her voice cracking with emotion for the first time in our conversation.
“Every time I hug him my head hits his pacemaker,” she says, laughing now. “I just think, ‘Can’t I go a single minute without being reminded of this?’”
It’s clear she’s not the wallowing, self-pitying type.
When she launched the business two years ago, her adviser told her to commit 1,000 days to it. It seemed like an impossibly long time.
“Then someone sent me a video which said people with ALS [another neuro-degenerative disease] live an average of 1,000 days after being diagnosed,” she says. “I knew then that I could definitely do this for 1,000 days. And hopefully make a difference.”