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Designing for All Abilities

By Valeriya Safronova

Grace Jun, executive director of Open Style Lab, in New York.
 
Hilary Swift
Grace Jun, executive director of Open Style Lab, in New York.

Shopping for and choosing clothes are challenging enough that an entire industry of stylists, magazine editors and fashion bloggers has been created to help. But imagine if your parameters included more than finding a sweater to complement your eye colour, or a backpack to match your sneakers.

Imagine if you were unable to use your arms to do anything (let alone get dressed), or used a wheelchair and needed to have easy access to a catheter, or had a spine with a significant convex curve that made pressing up against any flat surface painful, or had muscles that spasm.

Hilary SwiftA coat designed for Kieran Kern as part of a class run by Open Style Lab in New York.
A coat designed for Kieran Kern as part of a class run by Open Style Lab in New York.

Those conditions are reality for four people who became the “clients” of 15 students at Parsons School of Design at the New School this year. The students, who came from different majors, were divided into teams and spent a semester creating clothing to fit their clients’ unique requirements as part of a class run by Open Style Lab, a nonprofit organisation whose mission is to design functional and fashionable clothing for people with disabilities. The students presented their final projects on May 5.

“Disability overlaps with ageing and universal design,” said Grace Jun, the executive director of the program. “We need to see it as part of our life cycle. It’s something that we need to not only see from a human rights standpoint but also for its economic value.”

Nearly 40 million Americans, about 12 percent of the United States population, have disabilities.

Hilary SwiftAndrew James Sapala, left, and Douglas Balder at Parsons School of Design in New York.
Andrew James Sapala, left, and Douglas Balder at Parsons School of Design in New York.

“As a woman with a disability, I’m always looking at me being the problem and the clothing as being OK,” said Kieran Kern, who has spastic quad cerebral palsy and gets around in a wheelchair. When Kern approached Open Style Lab, she was looking for a coat that would be easy to put on with the limitations of a weaker body and muscles that can spasm. Her team came up with a red silk-and-wool, cape-inspired design with a circular rod that runs through the collar and allows Kern to swing the coat across her back with one hand.

For Christina Mallon, who has what doctors think is a rare form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, called flail arm syndrome, every task can become a challenge. “I can’t dress, feed, type, write, ride the subway without assistive devices or help from a friend,” she said.

So her Parsons team created a two-piece black wool coat with a capelike top to cover the arms and chest, and a narrow piece for the torso. “We split up the wearing process into two parts so it was easier for her to identify the entry points,” said Claudia Poh, who is working on a bachelor of fine arts degree in fashion.

The coat has wide arms that make it easy to slip into, boning in the neckline that prevents it from collapsing when Mallon pushes her head through, and a knit panel at the nape of the neck to make the top more fitted so it does not slide off.

Hilary SwiftIrene Park at Parsons School of Design in New York.
Irene Park at Parsons School of Design in New York.

A third group worked on a wraparound vest for Douglas Balder, who has compressed vertebrae that have caused an outward curve in his spine, and a fourth team created a pair of pants for Irene Park, who had a spinal cord injury that paralysed the lower half of her body and requires the use of a catheter.

“I think the most important thing they learned in the first three weeks was inclusive vocabulary," Jun said of the design teams. “And the challenges they faced throughout the course had to do a lot with interpersonal communication. They were able to understand that no two people with a disability are alike."

“You have to have a collaborative process,” she added. “We’re designing with each other, not for.”