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Can These Clothes Make Life Easier for Diabetics?

Designer Natalie Balmain is making clothes that are functional without sacrificing style.

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Four models leaning against a brick wall Photo: Type One

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Deciding what to wear can be an annoying enough task each morning as it is. But for folks living with diabetes, that daily process gets a little more complicated.

Diabetes is a disease that, for many who live with it (and globally, 422 million people do), requires frequent treatments throughout the day. For those with Type 1 diabetes, that treatment usually comes in the form of multiple insulin injections or by continuously wearing an insulin pump, both of which considerably limit the available clothing options. For others, a combination of diet, exercise, and oral medication are sometimes sufficient treatment, but even many living with Type 2 still need to take injections sometimes.

Imagine wearing your iPhone on your body all day, except instead of your headphones connecting your phone to your ears, they have to connect to your abdomen. And let’s say you want to wear a dress, but the dress doesn’t have pockets. Where’s your iPhone going to go? This is what people who wear insulin pumps have to figure out every morning. (If you take injections, you need to be able to hike up a pant leg or a sleeve to administer your shot, or else run to the restroom every time you need a dose.)

Natalie Balmain has been diabetic for just over 10 years now, and while she had accepted her diagnosis and had come to terms with the condition, she remained frustrated by how much simply keeping up with her medication was intruding into her daily life. “I can’t sit in a restaurant and pull my trousers down at the table — it’s not appropriate!” says Balmain, laughing while we’re on the phone. “So you end up running away, don’t you? You go and hide in the bathroom and do your injections. Sometimes they’re not always the most pleasant places to be.”

Two models, laughing Photo: Type One

And while some prefer to take their medication in private and don’t mind the inconvenience that is constantly sneaking away to do so, that wasn’t the case for Balmain. “It was annoying for me because I felt like I should be able to just do this wherever I want. It was really just the practical thing that was stopping me; it wasn’t a self-consciousness thing,” she says.

Then in the summer of 2015, Balmain got the idea to make herself a pair of pants that could unzip just a little, enough to quickly administer a shot. While she had studied fashion a bit in high school, design had remained mostly a hobby since then, except for the occasional styling and modeling gigs she was able to pick up. Later that year, when she showed her initial designs to some friends in a diabetic support group on Facebook, they began requesting her pieces as well, so Balmain decided to create a small collection, which she naturally named Type One.

“I wanted them to look like clothes that everybody would want,” says Balmain. The practical elements of Type One contribute to the aesthetic look of each item, rather than distract from it. The zips on the pants look like intentional slashes, the peplum on the dress obscures the pump pocket, and the zips on the high-waisted skirt go all the way to the top.

A model in a black dress Photo: Type One

“I think I went through a phase of letting diabetes win over fashion for me. And it affected my mood and how I felt about myself so much,” says Balmain. “If I constantly dressed in leggings and jumpers, I felt sloppy; I felt lethargic. I think people underestimate the power that fashion has on people’s emotional well-being. I just wanted to make something that made people feel good."

In May, she trickled a few images of her collection on social media. “I knew it would get a few likes and shares from my friends... but I had no — no idea, in a million years — it was gonna pick up the way that it did,” she says, noting that she’s had interest from folks who aren’t even diabetic, like Chelsea Clinton.

With the e-commerce business up and running, orders are steadily coming in every week. There’s still a four-to-six week turnaround because every piece is made-to-order by Balmain and her seamstress, but she has a manufacturer on hand in England ready to produce her designs if the business really starts to ramp up. The company has also pledged to donate 5 percent from each sale to diabetic research efforts.

Since her debut, she’s been inundated for requests to do lines for kids, teens, and men, which she plans to begin working on soon.

“You know that feeling when you’ve bought a really nice outfit and someone comes up to you and says, ‘Oh I love what you’re wearing.’ You feel great, don’t you? So to have somebody come up to me and say ‘OMG I love what you’re wearing!’ and I can say, ‘Oh, it’s one of my own pieces’ — it’s just that [feeling] times 10,” she says.

You can shop all the pieces from Type One’s first collection here.