By Stephanie Siek, CNN
(CNN) - Karen Bowersox doesn’t sleep much these days. Launching any self-funded clothing line would be exhausting enough, but Bowersox’s company, Downs Designs, created an entirely different system of sizing.
Its T-shirts and jeans meet the needs of people with Down syndrome.
“If I didn’t feel so sure of where we’re headed, I would never do this and risk what we have,” Bowersox said from a hotel room in Xintang, China, where she had been working with a jeans manufacturer. “I feel like a pit bull, because people better step aside and just let me get this job done.”
Bowersox created her company in 2010 to deal with a mundane yet agonizing problem – off-the-rack clothing would not fit her granddaughter, Maggie, who has Down syndrome.
Down syndrome’s best-known symptoms are those of intellectual impairment and facial differences – eyes that slant upwards, small mouths, and small, flat noses. But individuals with Down syndrome also have physical traits that make it difficult to find clothing that fits appropriately.
The condition is associated with poor muscle tone, which can make some body parts, like bellies, seem droopy. People with Down syndrome also tend to have thicker limbs, a short, thick neck, and short stature. Their knees and elbows are at slightly different points on their legs and arms. An underactive thyroid is common, and that can cause weight gain. Additionally, many children and adults with Down syndrome are sensitive to tight or restrictive clothing, especially around the waist or neckline.
This can make wearing ordinary clothes uncomfortable, and there are safety risks in tripping over pant legs that are too long or that don’t bend properly at the knee.
Bowersox said most people underestimate the effect that having badly-fitting clothes can have on the perception – and self-esteem – of a person with Down syndrome.
“Their entire life, this is one of their biggest challenges, and people do not know that,” Bowersox said. “They are forced to wear ill-fitting clothes that make their difference look even more pronounced. When they put on a shirt that fits, it takes away that difference.”
Julie Cevallos, vice president of marketing at the National Down Syndrome Society, said she’s been following the company’s progress on Facebook. Her 3-year-old daughter has Down syndrome, and her favorite outfits are stretchy leggings and loose tunics forgiving to most body types. But she said she’s glad to see Bowersox’s company taking the initiative.
“It seems like she is really filling a need that I haven’t seen anyone else filling, so I think it’s great,” Cevallos said.
Downs Designs now sells a line of women’s long-sleeved T-shirts and four styles of women’s jeans. Children's jeans and T-shirts are going into production. The company’s designers have drawn up designs for long- and short-sleeved t-shirts, blouses, khakis, jeans and coordinates for toddlers, kids, teens and adults. Bowersox said they hope to have the men’s jeans ready to sell by February, and hopes to introduce other items, especially khakis, in 2012.
The shop is starting to attract devoted customers.
"I've been getting lots of orders for the women's jeans. I just had a woman order her fifth pair. She loves them," Bowersox said. "It brings me to my knees, when someone feels good about how they look."
Bowersox's devotion to that idea is why she keeps going, despite exhaustion, mangled pattern samples, and setback after setback. She's using her house and husband's business as collateral for money that keeps the business running.
“I can’t accomplish this fast enough. I want a complete line in my lifetime. I want suits. I want prom dresses,” Bowersox said. “They just want to look like every other kid.”