September 28, 1987 12:00 PM

Each day Judi Emens receives long, handwritten letters from her customers. A few make her smile. Many make her cry. All make her work harder.

Emens is founder of Special Clothes, a unique company that makes trendy togs specially designed for disabled and handicapped children. To say her mail-order business is struggling is to be kind: Sales for 1987 are expected to total only $17,000. But not even Calvin Klein could claim a more appreciative clientele. Consider this letter to Emens from one Maryland mother: “I feel as so many other parents of handicapped children do, that I want my daughter to look as normal as possible…. You are an answer to [our] dreams and prayers.”

Such gratitude means a lot to Emens, 40. On casual inspection her stylish-looking, color-splashed designs (priced from $4 to $58) resemble typical off-the-rack kids’ garb. But a closer look shows inventive fine-tuning for children who are bound to a world of painful body braces, catheters, wheelchairs and diapers, a world in which putting on a conventional jacket can be a painful 20-minute ordeal. For example, her shirts have flaps that conceal openings for gastrointestinal feeding tubes and pockets to carry hearing aid battery packs. Pants legs are longer so that they don’t ride up in wheelchairs, and the pants themselves have snap crotches, spare room in the seat for diapers and padding at the knees and hips to lessen wear and tear from leg braces. “These kids get second best with everything,” says Emens. “A lot attend regular schools and want clothes that fit and look nice. It helps their self-image.”

Emens, who is divorced, runs the business from the sunny, plant-filled bungalow in Alexandria, Va., that she shares with daughter Meghan, 7, who is not disabled. A former Montessori teacher in Rochester, N.Y., Emens first came in contact with disabled children when she was assigned to teach handicapped kids. She was touched by their hardships and went back to school for a master’s degree in special education. She married and moved to Alexandria, quitting teaching temporarily after Meghan was born.

Emens became restless at home and, with a friend, made her longtime love of sewing into a business. Using the name Sweet Imaginings, the women started a successful line of fancy, home-sewn clothes for preschoolers. Customers at upscale department stores such as Bloomingdales and Sakowitz were only too happy to snap up $83 handmade overall-and-shirt sets. But Emens found a worm in the apple. “It was inconceivable to me that people would spend that kind of money on an outfit that a child was going to outgrow in three months,” she recalls. “Coming from a social-service background, that was hard to take.”

Anxious to do something more useful, she abandoned the business in 1985 and began planning Special Clothes. To support herself she took a part-time teaching job. The rest of the time she spent taking courses offered by the Small Business Administration. Despite her meticulous preparation, including the hiring of an accountant who drew up a three-year financial plan, banks turned her down because she had no collateral. Her father, a California businessman, came to her rescue with a $25,000 loan to be paid back in five years, and Special Clothes was launched in January 1986. “I came up with the designs after talking with parents and occupational therapists,” says Emens. “They told me the problems and I figured out the solutions.”

It wasn’t quite that simple. In her first season, her fabric suppliers made disastrously late deliveries, and the company hired to make her specially designed jackets suddenly went bankrupt. “I ended up refunding all the money sent in from catalog orders,” she says. “It wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to start out.” Things began looking up when the jacket’s patternmaker, a woman with an autistic son who was sympathetic to Emens’ cause, bought back her designs from the defunct manufacturer and went to work directly for her.

Today Emens has 450 active customers; 40 percent reorder regularly. With her latest catalog she hopes to catch the eye of institutional buyers, and has hired a Baltimore firm to take over the sewing, most of which she had done herself. Her big problem is a financial one. Bogged down with debts from start-up loans, she almost ran out of operating money; her dad came up with an additional $25,000. Now she’s concentrating on the future. Eventually she hopes also to start a nonprofit organization to distribute clothes to needy, disabled children.

Meanwhile, Emens is determined to keep her tiny company going. The letters that reach her desk, sometimes three and four pages long, keep reinforcing her strong sense of purpose. “Dear Judi,” began a recent note from a mother in Kingwood, Texas. “Our 5-year-old son was born with virtually no arms. I am primarily interested in slacks or jeans he can manipulate by himself….” If that 5-year-old is willing to try, Judi Emens knows that she can’t do less.

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