The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For people with dwarfism, a fashion line of their own

Kathy D. Woods presenting her clothes at the Little People of America Expo in 2014. (Photo courtesy Kathy D. Woods)
Placeholder while article actions load

New York Fashion Week is well underway. And while the designs that are gracing the runways in Bryant Park will trickle down to the rest of us throughout the year, most of us will never wear the actual clothes on display. Whether we can’t afford couture or whether we’re not quite what labels had in mind when they designated clothing lines ready-to-wear, Fashion Week is often more about fantasy than realistic aspirations. And the gap between dreams and reality can be particularly stark if you’re a person with dwarfism, a part of the market the already-myopic fashion industry ignores almost entirely.

But Kathy D. Woods has always loved clothes, even when it seemed like the apparel industry wasn’t even thinking of her, much less loving her back.

“Anybody I went to school with will tell you. I was always into fashion, I always liked designer clothes. My favorite pair of jeans as a little girl growing up was Calvin Klein and Jordache,” she recalled on the phone to me. But that passion ran up against the limitations of the fashion industry, which offered girls like Woods neither basics like jeans, nor stylish, age-appropriate clothes that let her have variety in her wardrobe.

“We would go to different stores, and it would be a challenge. Just finding the proper clothes that fit. Little people, as you know, we have big bottoms. And because we have big bottoms, it was hard to find pants and jeans to get over our bottoms. You would have to go up an extra size, which was a size you really didn’t need. . . . Because they make clothes for average-size people, the taller the person is, the wider the leg is,” creating more problems, she told me.

Woods’s mother tried to fill the gap, altering Woods’s clothes, including difficult-to-cut-down denim. “She did the best she could,” Woods remembered. “And then we were able to afford a sewing machine, my grandmother took over, actually, because my mother worked a lot.”

Despite those difficulties, Woods didn’t give up hope for the kinds of clothes she’d dreamed of — especially as she racked up awards for popularity, serving as homecoming queen in junior high and later as Miss Sophomore.

“It was a light blue dress, and I had navy blue shoes,” Woods told me of her homecoming dress and the revelation that was clothing custom-made for her. “I found a lady that actually was a seamstress, and she really was able to make clothes for me. It took me a while to find somebody who could do it. . . . She was able to see my vision. She was able to see what would complement my body.”

Convinced that custom clothes shouldn’t have to be the only option, Woods ultimately took her idea for a ready-t0-wear line for people of short stature to the incubator Fashion Business Inc., which focuses on helping women and members of other minority groups develop their ideas for fashion companies. And working with a designer, Woods rolled out her first line last year, focusing on providing high-quality basics for women.

There are more than 200 conditions that can cause a person to be of short stature, producing different body types. Woods says she had to be conservative, focusing first on people with achondroplasia, the most common of them, and suggesting easy alterations that would make her designs work for women with other body types. (She was tight-lipped about her plans when I suggested that whoever manages to come up with a sizing scheme for people of short stature will have a valuable business opportunity.)

Body shape influenced a huge number of Woods’s decisions. She was inspired by Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dress designs and the way they simultaneously help define the waist and conceal the midsection, making the form perfect for her clients because “we’re built so close and compact.”

She avoided horizontal stripes, chose bold colors for wrap dresses and blazers and picked out a small leopard print that wouldn’t overwhelm the designs and that would give her clients a pattern they could wear from season to season. “My goal,” Woods says of patterns, “was to find a print that’s not going to make you look wide, or much bigger than you really are, and something that will give you length.”

Woods is clear that she’s set a difficult project for herself. It’s hard to attract investors for a niche business. Woods isn’t even trying to keep up with the four-seasons-a-year pace of bigger designers. And while she has ambitions for a men’s line and a children’s line, right now, she’s focused on building her women’s clothing business — and on teaching other people with dwarfism that they can expect better when it comes to clothes, rather than defaulting to ill-fitting alterations or settling for children’s clothes even after they’ve reached adulthood.

“You look at this generation of little people. They’re attending college, and basically they need to dress the part. My brand will help build confidence and my goal is to provide little people women with the tools to help become successful. You look good, you feel good,” Woods argues. “When you try on clothes that fit your body, it’s like an awakening.”