Parsons creates accessible fashion for people of all abilities. Access past issues of re:D, the Alumni Magazine of Parsons School of Design, on Issuu.
The Parsons community leads in universal design, a hybrid field integrating fashion, wearable tech, and design ethnography with the aim of advancing social inclusivity and opportunity.
In mirrored aviators and jeans, sneakers, and a wheelchair that are all equally black and sleek, Pete Trojic looks at home in the New School University Center, waiting for a Parsons class to begin. But Trojic is not a student; he’s a client in an ambitious new interdisciplinary course created and led by Grace Jun, MFA Design and Technology ’16. Trojic is excited to see the progress students have made on the jacket they’ve been creating for him in Jun’s Open Style Lab Collab, a course focused on creating wearable solutions with people with disabilities. “Calling it a long raincoat doesn’t do it justice,” he says, explaining that it is precisely tailored to him in both fit and technical features. His point becomes clear when “Team Pete” — students from the MFA Design and Technology and BFA Fashion Design programs — assembles in the classroom to report progress.
BFA Fashion Design student Jonathan Lee holds up Trojic’s in-process garment and points to it newly refined construction. The water-repellent coat nearly reaches the floor and its back seam is split high, enabling Trojic to shorten the coat by connecting miniature magnets sewn along the vent to mates stitched into the coat’s sides to make it more comfortable to wear when seated. The vent also makes it easier for Trojic to walk with crutches when he must carry his chair where ramps or elevators aren’t accessible. Magnets that fasten the zipper’s bottom allow him to close the coat with one hand. Some of the coat’s most beneficial features are its subtlest: A grid of laser-cut perforations on the right cuff enables Trojic to check his light-up wristband, which monitors his chair’s brake functions; reinforced sleeves hold up to wear from wheelchair use. Equally important is the fact that the sleek garment looks cool — and markedly unlike the specialized gear wheelchair users have had to choose from up to now. “I’m design conscious and want something that looks, you know, like a New Yorker would wear it,” says Trojic, who has cerebral palsy and performs in a modern dance company. “Something that doesn’t look like it’s covered in ‘Help me!’ signs, that shows my personality.”
Inclusive by Design
To Jun, appealing to people like Trojic with clothing that incorporates special features is a major achievement for Team Pete — and the burgeoning field of universal design she passionately champions. The ability of design to express personality and stimulate interest is a capacity she discovered years ago, while working in South Korea for Samsung’s UX and mobile device groups. At Samsung, Jun became skilled at analyzing both users’ product interactions and design’s connection to factors ranging from personal empowerment to environmental sustainability. She also experienced firsthand the human-centered research and design process she employs today. “I spent a lot of time asking questions,” she says. “I saw that the ability to customize mobile devices made them more attractive and valuable.”
Jun’s deep dive into design ethnography prepared her for her next step. She was offered the educational director position at Open Style Lab (OSL), a summer program, housed at MIT’s International Design Center, to design accessible clothing or wearable tech for individuals with varying abilities. The move back to the States in 2014 immersed her in a new kind of human-centered design. During OSL intensives, Jun fostered connections between engineering and occupational therapy students, materials scientists, designers, and clients seeking wearables to address diverse needs related to illness or disability. The role deepened her understanding of universal design as an inclusive approach that challenges designers to consider the broadest possible user base and requirements. It’s a process Jun describes as “using design to go from dependence to independence.” Her position also demonstrated the importance of creating with, not for, those seeking specialized wearables. “The people coming for help had already adapted existing apparel. Our successes hinged as much on listening and asking questions as they did on design per se,” she says. In one case, Jun collaborated with the parent of a young woman whose autism made garments seams so irritating that she would tear apart her clothing. The experience sparked both design ideas (to use ultrasonic welding techniques to make nearly seamless fabric edges) and realizations that raised her expectations for OSL. “It’s been 25 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act, and clothing isn’t adequately addressed as a need,” says Jun. “You, or someone you care for, is diagnosed — whether from birth or from injuries — and then what?”
The experience began with discovery — for the students, learning about people who have differing ability. I also learned a lot about myself in the process, needs I didn’t even realize I had, and the power of design to meet the needs of people with disabilities. —Xian Horn
To help answer such questions, OSL incorporated as a 501(c)3, gaining greater independence and operational flexibility. The move eventually led Jun to take on OSL’s executive directorship and bring the lab to Parsons, where she had enrolled in the MFA Design and Technology program to further her universal design research. “I thought that OSL should be close to a design school to broaden its methods and employ more than a health care approach — and expand how we think about fashion,” she says. As she developed a line of jackets for women recuperating from breast cancer surgery for her master’s thesis, OSL became a research initiative under the auspices of the Parsons Design Lab. Working with people with disabilities, Jun began developing the OSL Collab course on wearable solutions, which launched in fall 2016, ran again in spring 2017, and continues as a class open to graduate and upper-level undergraduate students.
The first goal of her course is to give students a foundation in usercentric research blended with observational training. “We start by using inclusive language; it helps us understand who our partners are and why we need accessible clothing,” says Jun. The exercise brings home a sobering reality: “Most of us will experience an important change in ability at some point in our lives.” From there, student teams collaborate closely with their co-creator clients to develop wearable solutions for design problems. The inaugural class was composed entirely of MFA Design and Technology and BFA Fashion Design students; the spring 2017 course featured a wider disciplinary array, including an MFA Lighting Design/Interior Design student, a BFA Product Design student, and a BFA Fine Arts student. Last fall, Trojic was joined by Xian Horn — founder of Give Beauty Wings, a women’s self-empowerment curriculum, and Changeblazer, a diversity consultancy — and Jen Howell, a physical therapist with Type 1
Chiari malformation (EDS), which causes her shoulder to chronically dislocate.
In just one term, student teams formed close bonds with their client co-creators: Horn, for example, invited her OSL team to appear in a documentary about her. “The experience began with discovery — for the students, learning about people who have differing ability,” says Horn, reflecting on the course. “I also learned a lot about myself in the process, needs I didn’t even realize I had, and the power of design to meet the needs of people with disabilities.”
Scaled for Impact
It’s one thing to make clothing for someone who has a specific challenge, and another to build onto that research to create something serving a wider community or that’s universal. This is a long-term project to develop solutions that apply widely. —Grace Jun
A major insight emerging from Jun’s work relates to scale and impact: “It’s one thing to make clothing for someone who has a specific challenge, and another to build onto that research to create something serving a wider community or that’s universal,” she explains. “This is a long-term project to develop solutions that apply widely.” To that end, Open Style Lab is partnering with Parsons to bring the 2017 Summer Program to the Making Center this summer. The summer session is open to students from around the world and from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. Jun has received a record number of applications for the session, which focuses on in-depth user experience testing of the solutions previously developed by students using materials from OSL partners including Woolmark and Polartec. Her connections with the New York Spinal Cord Injury Association have yielded five outside participants as co-creators, and she will bring in specialists in physical and occupational therapy as advisors.
The engagement with universal design has the halo effect of enriching students’ awareness of wearable technology and its potential. For Priyal Parikh, an MFA Design and Technology student who took Jun’s course at Parsons last fall, the journey to universal design included a personal dimension: Parikh suffers from severe lower back pain and began developing a back support incorporating a heating element to address her symptoms. The project grew into a thesis, Imbrace, which includes a customizable foundation garment for women, designed in a version to be worn under clothes, as a vest-like piece topping a camisole or T-shirt, or as a support brace sewn into a blazer. Lacking a fashion background, Parikh found a mentor and thesis advisor in wearable tech specialist Aneta Genova, who guided the construction of Imbrace’s satin-and-boning prototypes. Parikh is combining digital skills from her Design and Technology curriculum, research methods from universal fashion, and her undergraduate business degree into an entrepreneurial venture: Imbrace will soon be available in a variety of options on Parikh’s e-commerce site. “The process got me to rethink what wearable tech is,” says Parikh. “Tech isn’t just clothing with embedded electronics. Technical fibers and magnetic closures are also tech. To solve a problem, Imbrace didn’t need Arduino; it needed high-performance materials and a design that you’d want to wear and that would get people talking about back pain.”
I started to question how the fashion industry’s idealized body measurements, which are tied to making apparel cheaply, exclude whole populations. —Camila Chiriboga
Camila Chiriboga, a senior in the BFA Fashion Design program, was inspired by the course to develop new human-centered methods and ask provocative questions about changes needed in creative industries. “We started by spending time with Xian, hearing about her needs, observing her body in motion. I was used to making prototypes in the studio; user research and tailoring for a specific person were newer,” she says. “Working with Xian helped me see how design accommodates different kinds of bodies and abilities. And I started to question how the fashion industry’s idealized body measurements, which are tied to making apparel cheaply, exclude whole populations.”
During her time at Parsons, Chiriboga has designed clothing with special features for patients on dialysis and individuals with cerebral palsy, diabetes, and, currently, visual impairment. Lina Aquino, a classmate and BFA Fashion Design senior, adds, “Body standards in fashion are changing, but the industry still leaves out a lot of people. The average American woman is between size 16 and 18; a lot of makers don’t even offer those sizes.” For her senior thesis, Aquino is creating a clothing line for people who have lost limbs, a choice driven by a desire to “make a difference in the world.”
Hybrid Practice and Hospital Gowns
Chiriboga’s and Aquino’s work travels along paths opened up by alumna Lucy Jones, BFA Fashion Design ’15, a designer whose groundbreaking universal design has already had broad impact. Even as she was finishing her degree, Jones was establishing collaborations with start-ups like Care and Wear and Runway for Dreams, a nonprofit that Tommy Hilfiger tapped last year to create universal fashion versions of mainstream styles. Jones’ thesis, inspired by a cousin with hemiplegia who struggles to find clothes and dress himself independently, was based on intensive design ethnographic research with United Cerebral Palsy New York. She created customizable clothing patterns for wheelchair users, accompanied by garments illustrating the features designed to make apparel easy to put on and remove. The ambitious project — a kind of manifesto encouraging designers and the industry to embrace the full range of human abilities and bodies — helped Jones secure a year-long Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)–EILEEN FISHER paid apprenticeship, equipping her with production skills to support her entrepreneurship.
“Few people with unique needs get to work with a designer to come up with custom solutions,” says Jones, explaining the challenge. “So developing clothing patterns that can address a variety of users and a range of ability has far-reaching potential. There’s a community of us coming up with solutions that make the functionality of the garment universal and not just for able-bodied people.” In focusing on modular patterns, Jones complements the work of Jun and others in OSL through design intended to be scalable and shared widely.
Jones, who serves as a mentor to Parsons students pursuing needs-based design, recently led, with Brittany Dickinson, a class co-sponsored by AARP that presented a universal fashion ultimate challenge: a redesign of the standard hospital gown. “Hospital gowns represent one of the best examples of how wearable design can improve human experience,” says Jones. “Nearly everyone will wear one at some point, yet they are almost universally disliked as awkward at best and degrading at worst.” The course, titled Care and Wear, tasked students with working directly with patients, doctors, and clinicians to address varied considerations. “In one garment, we were challenged to design taking into account the range of gender identification, sizes, cultures, kinds of illness or recovery, and other factors — in design solutions that could have truly widespread impact,” says Jones.
Dean of Parsons’ School of Fashion Burak Cakmak sees the growing support for universal fashion as an indication of changes taking place in the academy, industry, and society. Cakmak points to BFA Fashion Design’s new “Systems and Society” curricular pathway — one of four core undergraduate pathways — which embodies the human-centered, socially engaged approach to design that underpins a Parsons education. Systems and Society courses, he explains, challenge students to analyze the global fashion system’s connection to sociocultural values, environmentalism, and production and consider fashion’s impact in human terms — health-related aspects of materials and sourcing, labor, and media representation, for example. The goal is to cultivate students’ systems-thinking abilities so that they can reimagine the fashion system’s various dimensions, from consumption behavior to product lifecycle to design processes and practices that ignore special needs.
Cakmak connects accessible fashion to cultural and technological shifts. “Until recently, customization in fashion was synonymous with couture,” he says. “But as our culture embraces difference and diversity more fully, we see a growing need for individualized solutions. That’s where disruptors like Lucy come in, to push the industry forward until the ideas take greater hold and the business models and technology advance to support them.” He cites Parsons’ collaboration opportunities with external partners like AARP and Nike as evidence that major organizations and firms are seeking out diversity-focused design research and innovation. AARP’s Disrupt Aging in Fashion Competition, held this spring at Parsons, tasked students with applying their human-centered design process to address older adults’ age- and ability-related problems through end-user collaboration and wearable design. And Nike carried forward its commitment to universal fashion with Parsons and the Cerebral Palsy Foundation in Design for Disability, another recent project aimed at sparking innovation in apparel for the differently abled community.
Sara Kozlowski, BFA Fashion Design ’93, CFDA’s director of education and professional development, sees universal design as a dimension of an industry being reinvented by a new generation. “Younger fashion leaders are coming up with new creative methodologies and businesses as alternatives to the traditional industry. They’re putting other considerations — inclusivity, sustainability, fair labor practice, and independence — in the center, where small-scale production can accommodate a range of needs,” she says. “The recent retail crisis suggests that answers, and resilience, can come from outside the large-scale fashion system.” Kozlowski knew Jones through a position she had held at Parsons and had met Jun during a visit to Boston to see OSL’s work. She maintains professional contacts with both and serves on OSL’s advisory board — roles that give her hope for the future of wearables. “These new practitioners, with their passion, open-source approaches, and embrace of interdisciplinarity, are putting systems thinking into action. In the present moment — of fashion, tech, the world at large — what better promise for the future is there?”
Aimee Williams is a fashion studies scholar and instructor and has written
for Bloomsbury Publishing, BIAS, and exhibitions at FIT. John Haffner Layden has written about art and design for online and print platforms including MoMA.org, Dezeen, Rizzoli, and Random House.