Fashioning Solutions to Adaptability Challenges

By Poornima Apte, Contributor

The 10 teenage girls who participated as clients in Open Style Labs‘ (OSL) 2019 summer workshop were clear about how they wanted to dress: Though wheelchair-bound, they didn’t want their clothes to look dowdy or wear skirts that flew around in the slightest breeze.

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One of the solutions: hooks—woven into the skirts—that could fasten into the wheelchair and keep the skirts in place.

Such adaptive challenges fuel the team at OSL, a New York City-based nonprofit that works in collaboration with the Parsons School of Design. OSL uses technology to create adaptive fashion solutions for people with disabilities.

Every summer, OSL forms a single “cohort” by bringing together 10-12 fashion designers, engineers, and occupational therapists to work on adaptive dressing solutions. OSL offers stipends to these professional “fellows,” for which fundraising covers all costs. Since OSL’s launch in 2015, four cohorts have graduated from the summer workshop.

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Each year’s cohort works with a set of five to 12 new clients who are culled from the local community. OSL selects clients from a call they put out for individuals with adaptive challenges; then clients and fellows are matched to form teams, working and test-driving solutions in search of potential solutions. The exact makeup of each team varies depending on the scope of the adaptive challenge at hand.

OSL’s summer lab has a classroom equivalent at Parsons School of Design where groups of three to four students work on adaptive solutions and recruit individuals with adaptive challenges into their projects.

STEAM Education

In the 2019 edition of the summer lab, OSL decided to focus exclusively on teen girls with disabilities as their client base. The reasoning is two-fold. First, says Christina Mallon, OSL’s chief brand officer, it’s well known that teen girls struggle with self-image; they are at the cusp of trying to figure out their paths in life. Second, having disabilities can complicate things further, Mallon adds.

By participating in the summer lab, the teen girls learned how science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) skills could be applied in real life, an important goal for OSL. “Our mission was to help [the teens] create a garment so they could feel independent and also teach them about STEAM,” Mallon says.

The Empathy Quotient

Mallon herself understands the struggles of disability firsthand. When she was just 22, she developed a motor neuron disease after a car accident, leaving her arms paralyzed. Nevertheless, she doesn’t believe a designer needs to live with a disability to identify challenges and develop solutions; rather, empathy is the cornerstone of adaptive design, as it focuses on inclusive practices. “[Empathy] is imperative when you’re working with the community and figuring out exactly what they need,” she says.

Because disabilities fall under a large umbrella—an individual with a low-vision disability faces different challenges than someone who suffers from multiple sclerosis, for instance—OSL is careful not to make generalized assumptions.

Grace Jun, CEO of OSL, created a garment outfitted with a micro-controller and sensors for a breast cancer survivor who found it difficult to convey the level of pain in her arms.

Instead, the summer lab, lead by Grace Jun, CEO of OSL, and an assistant professor at Parsons School of Design, zooms in on the dressing and self-expression challenges that manifest as a result of disability. The teams focus on the adaptive challenge—difficulty putting on buttons or putting arms through sleeves, for example—instead of the disability itself. While the summer 2019 group of teen girl clients may have had different reasons for being wheelchair-bound, they shared many of the same dressing challenges.

Weaving in Technology

Projects at OSL have ranged in technical complexity from simple fasteners to elaborate circuit-driven solutions using voice enhancers. The technology component flows from the recruited fellows and CEO Jun’s own work in addressing adaptive challenges.

In her independent research, Jun made a garment outfitted with a micro-controller and sensors for a breast cancer survivor who found it difficult to convey the level of pain in her arms to her physical therapist. The circuit woven into the garment picks up the arm movement and relays that information via Bluetooth connection to a screen as a percentage of the patient’s original abilities. Since therapists can get more precise measurements about arm movement, they can better quantify the associated pain, and designers can work on adaptive solutions that take these pain factors into account.

“Rather than creating garments that are targeted to the masses, technology allows us to create items that are personalized and modified to adapt to and accentuate all body types, removing limitations that fashion sometimes creates.”

—Megan Sullivan, founder, With Grace B. Bold

Megan Sullivan, founder of With Grace B. Bold, a line of adaptive clothing for women recovering from breast cancer surgery, agrees that such technology mixed in with generous doses of empathy can significantly impact the fashion industry. “[It] will break boundaries in the clothing industry, which is typically bound by a set array of sizes and silhouettes,” she says. “I believe that technology allows us to modify and enhance the processes in place to create clothing. Rather than creating garments that are targeted to the masses, technology allows us to create items that are personalized and modified to adapt to and accentuate all body types, removing limitations that fashion sometimes creates.”

Access and the Future

To encourage access on a wider scale, OSL is creating kits that will help people with disabilities “hack” their clothing to make it more adaptive. Magnet buttons, stencils, and pulley systems (for sleeves) are a few components that make up the boxes. Accompanying videos will walk users through how to implement these simple hacks.

The summer 2019 cohort of teen girls also helped OSL make these kits, furthering their STEAM education goals. They worked on fine-tuning a “loop hack,” which helps create a loop to hook onto a wheelchair, and a “pocket hack” that can create pockets without sewing (heavy duty glue comes to the rescue). These kits will be sold in beta mode soon through OSL’s website.

Sullivan is optimistic about the future of adaptive fashion. “I can imagine technology integrating with fashion through our senses, whether that be touch, sight, etc. This could be anything from sensors that sense stress or raised heartbeats in those with anxiety, to helping children with autism by sensing distress or the need to be soothed. The possibilities are endless.”

Mallon agrees: “The intersection of fashion and technology is moving even quicker than expected. So empathy is key. It’s why we have multi-functional teams—engineers, designers and therapists that work together—because we need inclusive, varied, and empathetic perspectives.”