Life in a wheelchair inspired Cork man to develop inclusive and sustainable clothing line

In the final part of our eight-week series on small businesses, MARTINA O’DONOGHUE chats to Nathan Kirwan, whose new fashion business was inspired by his experiences as a wheelchair user
Life in a wheelchair inspired Cork man to develop inclusive and sustainable clothing line

Nathan Kirwan wearing Chariot.

FOR a man who is the co-founder of a clothing brand, Nathan Kirwan admits he is a reluctant participant in the fashion industry.

Nathan, from Currabinny, sustained a spinal chord injury from a fall in 2013 and life in a wheelchair since then has thrown up all sorts of challenges.

“Clothing was one of the challenges I had to overcome; dressing in general,” he explains.

“I found clothes just weren’t suitable for sitting in,they weren’t functional. I used to have issues putting them on and then when they were on they didn’t always stay on, or fall the way you’d expect them to.

Nathan's sister Aisling wearing Chariot sunglasses and mountain t-shirt.
Nathan's sister Aisling wearing Chariot sunglasses and mountain t-shirt.

“I was looking in my wardrobe and I had clothes that looked good but didn’t fit and I had clothes that fitted well but didn’t look good. So I spent the first four or five years just in tracksuits all the time.

“Then I decided to design clothing around the sitting position. I kicked off this project out of frustration more than anything else.”

Prior to his accident, Nathan worked as an engineer on cruise ships, where boiler suits were the extent of his fashion needs. Becoming a clothing designer or retailer was certainly not on his radar back then, but the past two years have seen him go from initial exploratory steps to a full launch of Chariot Clothing in 2020 in partnership with his sister Aisling.

So how did he get started?

“I drew up some of my ideas and altered trousers that were out there and made them my own with a bit of butchering. I then got a sample made up,” he begins.

That first sample was destined for India as Nathan had an acquaintance from a business course who was returning to his native country for the summer. The first sets of trousers were made there, which Nathan subsequently sold. It was a positive start but ultimately, Nathan chose another country for manufacturing.

A model wearing Chariot Classic Hoodie Organic Cotton and Recycled Polyester Forrest Green
A model wearing Chariot Classic Hoodie Organic Cotton and Recycled Polyester Forrest Green

“It’s not the most environmentally friendly industry out there,” he admits. “I said if I was going to do this I was going to do this as clean as possible, so I have since found a factory in Bulgaria and the reason I picked Bulgaria was because they have a good renewable energy policy and it’s within the EU so they have better labour laws and environmental laws. I want to keep it as sustainable and ethical as possible.”

And there’s even a Cork connection to the Bulgarian operation.

“The lad who actually owns the business is from Cork – married to a Bulgarian lady – so there are strong ties to here,” he explains.

The materials for the clothing are chosen with sustainability in mind.

“Our jumpers are made from regenerated cotton and recycled polyester, we have an active top made from plastic bottles and our t-shirts are made from 100% organic cotton. Organic cotton uses fewer pesticides, less fertilizer and less water so it’s better for the environment and for the farmers actually growing it as well,” says Nathan.

A model wearing Chariot Bile T-shirt Organic Cotton
A model wearing Chariot Bile T-shirt Organic Cotton

From a wheelchair user’s point of view, back pockets can be a disaster, so they were one of the first things to be banished.

“There are no back pockets because pressure sores are an issue if you are sitting on badly stitched corners. When I was buying trousers prior to this, I was pulling the back pockets off.

“The trousers are higher on the back as well because when you’re transferring in and out of the car sometimes they can slip down, so it just gives better coverage. The pockets also start further down the hips. If you’re ever trying to take your phone out of your pockets when you’re sitting down, you usually have to half stand up to take things out, so I made them more accessible and easy to use.”

These kinds of adjustments are what Nathan describes as “subtle, unique features”.

And while his business may have been born out of the needs of a wheelchair user, Chariot sets out to be an all-inclusive brand, with a range for non-wheelchair users as well.

A model wearing Chariot Mountain T-Shirt Organic Cotton
A model wearing Chariot Mountain T-Shirt Organic Cotton

Men’s adaptive trousers and shorts can be found in the ‘Rolling Range’ on their website, while there are t-shirts and hoodies available for all men and women. The accessories section offers beanies and sunglasses.

There is an active, outdoorsy look to the lifestyle apparel, so it’s no surprise to learn that Nathan keeps as active as possible.

“I cycle, I swim a lot during the summer and I have a racing chair; I did a half marathon in the summer,” he says. And just as he solved his own issues with clothing, he has also displayed ingenuity when it comes to the mechanics of his hand bike.

“I have fierce trouble changing gears on my hand bike so I invented a system, whereby if I blow or suck into a tube, the gear will go up or down.

“So that makes cycling my hand bike a bit easier.”

Outside of Chariot, Nathan works part time at UCC’s Renewable Energy Centre in Ringaskiddy, working on a European project to make sea ports more sustainable.

In September, he also started the IGNITE programme at UCC, an initiative to help businesses grow in their first 12 months.

Things have certainly been busy for Nathan, but luckily he has his sister Aisling on board and each have their own roles.

A model wearing Chariot Hoodie Organic Cotton and recycled polyester
A model wearing Chariot Hoodie Organic Cotton and recycled polyester

“Aisling brings the creativeness to it. She does the designs on t-shirts and jumpers and she also does the warehousing and the marketing, Facebook and Instagram. Then I do everything else really: design, dealing with the factory, ordering and finance,” he explains.

Together, they hope to scale up and expand into England, Europe and America in the coming year. Also on the horizon is a range of adaptive trousers and shorts for females, while Nathan and Aisling will continue to stress the importance of Chariot being an all-inclusive brand.

A model wearing Chariot Wave Jumper Organic Cotton
A model wearing Chariot Wave Jumper Organic Cotton

Their motto is “Work hard, play hard, adventure hard – whether you sit or stand!”

See www.chariotclothing.com and follow @thisischariot on social media.

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