Having a child go through a major operation is trying for any mother, but when Nicole Puzzo’s then 5-year-old daughter Stella underwent double hip surgery in 2015, she faced an additional hardship. For three months following the procedure, Stella, who has cerebral palsy, had casts on both legs with a bar set between them. When the Massachusetts mom asked doctors about special clothing her child could wear for that time period, she was informed there wasn’t any.
“It was definitely discouraging to think that there were not many solutions or options out there to dress Stella in during her recovery,” Puzzo told Nice News, adding: “I knew that dresses, blankets, and long T-shirts just would not work for her. I wanted to give her some sense of normalcy while dealing with such a long recovery.”
Puzzo shared the problem with her friend and fellow mom Joanne DiCamillo, who was stunned to learn what Stella was confined to, and how that might affect her feeling of freedom and confidence.
“Up until then, I had completely taken getting dressed for granted,” said DiCamillo. “It was a basic daily task that I gave little thought to. Understanding how difficult it can be, and what a struggle it can be for millions of people, was very eye-opening.”
Puzzo, determined not to have to drape blankets over her little girl’s legs for three months, got to work crafting a pair of pants that could be put on over her casts. She cut open a pair of her daughter’s pajama bottoms and replaced the outer seams with Velcro — a simple design change that made a huge difference in helping Stella feel that sense of normalcy. When doctors saw her wearing the pair at a post-op appointment, they encouraged Puzzo to make more.
DiCamillo was also impressed, and recognized the difference the pants could make in others’ lives as well.
“I felt very impassioned by this lack of adaptive clothing,” she explained, “and the more Nikki and I talked about it, we realized we had an opportunity to provide a solution for a problem that so many people struggled with.”
After just a few conversations, and less than a year after Stella’s surgery in December 2015, the two women formed befree, an adaptive clothing brand dedicated to improving lives through inclusive fashion. Per the company website, befree’s mission is “to offer a product that provides freedom during a time when freedom feels so far away.”
While the original Velcro pants worked, Puzzo realized they didn’t hold up that well in the wash. She and DiCamillo experimented with other types of closures, testing snaps and snap tape before landing on zippers.
DiCamillo even got her then 85-year-old mother involved in the company. Now 92, she “could make almost anything from scratch,” her daughter said, adding: “Once Nikki and I realized we wanted to go forward with befree and bring the pants to market, her skills got us off the ground with many prototypes, samples, and our first pattern.”
The women incorporated feedback from small groups of wearers and consulted with a nursing director at Massachusetts General Hospital to better understand functionality needs from a medical perspective. After settling on a final design, Puzzo and DiCamillo were granted both design and utility patents for the pants, which they dubbed zipOns.
Today, befree sells pants for children and adults. They’re made with an athletic material and come in a wide range of color combinations. Most importantly, the clothing is helping individuals around the world feel more comfortable and in control.
“Feedback from parents and kids who wear them has been extremely positive. They love the zippers and the color combinations,” said Puzzo, adding: “It has been extremely rewarding to see the impact a pair of pants made from necessity has changed so many people’s lives.”
And as for now 14-year old Stella, the impetus behind befree?
“Stella loves being the inspiration and being a part of the movement in adaptive fashion,” her mom shared. “She loves seeing the other kids and adults wearing zipOns. I love that she is part of it and has been an active role and influencer in our products and designs. She has a long list of items for us!”