Fashion Rule Breakers

How Open Style Lab Fosters Innovation In Adaptive Wear Design, A Field That Could Help Millions

" ... they have the ability to change someone’s life in something that you could potentially mass produce."

Fashion Rule Breakers is an original A Plus Lifestyle series: Each month, we profile a fashion designer, model, organization, or icon who is a fashion rule breaker — someone who acts outside mainstream industry standards to make a positive difference.

Imagine struggling to button a shirt when Parkinson's disease is causing your hands to shake. Can you picture trying to put on a coat without assistance when both your arms are paralyzed? What about having to find pants that accommodate a catheter, or a jacket you can easily zip up despite a spinal cord injury and being in a wheelchair? 

So many of us take for granted our access to clothes we are able to wear and feel good in, but approximately 40 million Americans who live with a disability don't experience such a luxury. This portion of the population is so often overlooked by those in the fashion world that it can be near-impossible to find clothing options that meet their needs, and are both stylish and affordable. 

But while most mainstream brands aren't paying attention to this untapped market (yet), one group of innovators has taken heed by launching a nonprofit organization called Open Style Lab (OSL) to create design solutions for people of all abilities. 

By working to equip the community with the skills to create, distribute, and increase style and clothing accessible to people of all abilities, and furthering research and awareness for inclusion, those behind OSL are being fashion rule breakers.

Open Style Lab education program at Parsons School of Design in New York City
Open Style Lab education program at Parsons School of Design in New York City Courtesy of Open Style Lab

OSL launched in 2014 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after some witnessed the Boston Marathon bombing that left many survivors disabled. As part of its mission, the organization partners with Parsons School of Design in New York City, where select students take part in an education program to design adaptive wear for local clients of varying abilities

The class is split into competing teams — each comprised of a fashion student, engineer, and occupational therapist (OT) — to create an accessible wearable item tailored for their client's specific need. 

In the 2016 summer program, for example, one team was tasked to create a multi-season jacket for a high school student named Justin born with muscular dystrophy. To meet Justin's design needs, the team experimented with different fabrics to waterproof the material, and worked with 3-D models to design prototypes for optimal warmth, comfort, and possible self-manipulation.

At the end of the course, each team presents their final product to a panel of respected judges in the field, and the winning team is awarded a cash prize. Last month, a team that created a raincoat for a client in a wheelchair was announced the winner of the summer 2017 10-week program.

Eliza, a client of the summer 2016 program:: "Just-in Jacket: The Just-in Jacket is a multi-season jacket with a unique design and structure to maximize wearing comfort for a bright high schooler with muscular dystrophy, Justin, and ease donning and doffing for the caretaker, his mother, Prow."

While clients such as Justin benefit by taking home the garment, they, in turn, provide feedback for students throughout the process, helping them learn about inclusion, lack of accessibility, and disability and the kind of apparel needed to make their day-to-day more manageable. This is especially important as many students come into the class with little to no experience designing for people with functional needs. 

"I think the most important thing they learned in the first three weeks was inclusive vocabulary," Grace Jun, executive director of OSL, told The New York Times. "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." 

“Being able to design inclusively means you have to have a collaborative process. We’re designing with each other, not for.”

Courtesy of Open Style Lab
Courtesy of Open Style Lab

To give us a sense of a client's personal experience with OSL, Christina Mallon, on the OSL board of directors, told us about working with the Parsons class in the spring of 2017. As a New Yorker who lives alone and works full-time, she needed a winter coat she could easily put on without using her arms, which are both paralyzed. 

"It's freezing for three months, and If I had no coat to wear, I would probably have to quit my job because I couldn't get to it every day, and OSL made a fashionable coat for me that looks like something I could buy from Theory," Mallon tells A Plus. " I'm able to get to work every day, and make an income, and then also be a role model for people with disabilities, showing that they can do everything, no matter what."

As Mallon's story illustrates, something as seemingly simple as a coat can be the difference between a person being able to get to work to support themselves and being unemployed. This is a huge given that only 17.9 percent of people with a disability were employed last year, according to a 2017 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. "OSL … is really addressing the fact that adults need clothing, and this demographic needs to be assessed and given what they need to flourish," Mallon says. 

Christina Mallon's winter coat  Courtesy of Open Style Lab

Out of all the designs that have come out of OSL, Mallon's favorite — besides her own winter coat, of course — was a shirt designed for Eliza, a client of the summer 2016 program who has severe autism. Because people with autism spectrum disorder are often hypersensitive to stimuli, something like a tag, seam, or specific types of fabric can be bothersome. This client found her clothes to be so unbearable, she'd rip them off, making it difficult for her to even leave the house. 

"Open Studio Lab was working with Polartec …  they have great fabrics, so they were able to help us find something that was basically unrippable," says Mallon. "Then, we made sure the seams were on the inside so that [Eliza] wouldn't pick at them." 

What's more, the client got to create her own kaleidoscope design for the shirt since she was very artistic. "The design of the shirt is so beautiful, and they took something this girl loves, which was her art, and made it into a shirt that was wearable for her. And I think that is just really interesting — to take something that's unique to the person, but also make it usable for the entire community." 

Eliza, a client of the summer 2016 program: "Ease is a line of durable, stylish activewear-inspired shirts with moderate compression for comfort and sensory input. Lack of side seams and flat seam technology make the shirts smooth against the skin, eliminating pain points and threads for those who are sensitive to sensory stimuli." 
Eliza, a client of the summer 2016 program: "Ease is a line of durable, stylish activewear-inspired shirts with moderate compression for comfort and sensory input. Lack of side seams and flat seam technology make the shirts smooth against the skin, eliminating pain points and threads for those who are sensitive to sensory stimuli."  Courtesy of Open Style Lab

Thankfully, some major brands are becoming more mindful of these customers' needs. For example, Target launched a sensory-friendly collection this past August with comfortable inseams and no tags. Last year, Tommy Hilfiger partnered with Runway of Dreams, a nonprofit organization, founded by fashion designer and mother Mindy Scheier, and released a clothing collection for children with disabilities. Mallon is hopeful the fashion world at large will soon become a more inclusive space for people of varying abilities and that those who complete the OSL course will continue to be innovators in the field at fashion houses or even tech companies. 

"The woman who created my coat is now doing her thesis on accessible design, and was working with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation to create clothing for people in wheelchairs. So, students tend to continue on in this mission of creating inclusive clothing," Mallon says. "Inclusion is required by law for careers like architects, and in all kinds of other businesses, but not in fashion. So it's really [the students] who are going to make the change. Usually, they think it'll be someone else that will handle it, or it's too expensive to make these universal designs when, in reality, something as simple as a magnet for a zipper can change someone's life." 

“I think they really see they have the ability to change someone’s life in something that you could potentially mass produce."

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