Technology as a part of fashion and technology and fashion as a force for good? It sounds unlikely, but one non-profit organisation in the US is showing that it is possible. What’s more, it is doing it through a process of co-creation that ensures that products really deliver what customers want.
Government and lobby group action has resulted in huge improvements in physical access for disabled people, for example, to buildings, trains and other public transport. Many would say that this process has not gone nearly far enough—for example, owners of old buildings can often cite the age or condition of the building as a reason for not installing a lift—but there is no question that the issue is becoming more mainstream.
In thinking about wheelchair access, however, we may forget that there are other kinds of disabilities, many of them far less visible. For example, going into a train station may be completely out of the question for someone who suffers from some kind of sensory disorder, and cannot cope with noise and large numbers of people.
Another area that is a major challenge for many people with disabilities is clothing and fashion. So-called accessible fashion is often not exactly fashionable or stylish. The challenges that each person faces may be highly individual—after all, body shape varies enormously, as does taste in clothes. Issues range from the need for wheelchair users to avoid clothes that rub, especially when seated, through questions of fastening if you have restricted mobility in your hands, to issues about cloth feel for those who struggle with sensory overload problems. It may therefore not pay individual companies to develop mass-market solutions.
Design in partnership
This has not stopped Open Style Lab. This non-profit organisation was set up to make style and clothing accessible to anyone. It originally started at MIT in 2014, and now operates in New York City in partnership with Parsons School of Design. It runs summer programs and internships, and partners small groups of designers, engineers and occupational therapists with disabled people to identify and then solve an individual issue related to clothing or wearables of some kind.
Over the past few years, some of the projects have very much been about clothes. The 2016 summer program, for example, included a coat with flaps to increase ventilation and avoid having to remove it indoors, plus magnetic closures for those with limited dexterity. Another line from that program included sports-type clothes designed to provide slight compression, and therefore increase sensory input. Use of flat seam technology increased comfort and avoided chafing. Another coat was designed for a wheelchair user, with a shorter back, ending at the seat, but longer front to cover legs, and plenty of pockets to store necessities.
Other projects, however, have been closer to technology solutions. One client, for example, wanted a mobile system that would enable him to be heard more clearly from his wheelchair. Speakers on a headset linked to his wheelchair turned out to be the answer. Projects involving conductive materials are also being considered. This is very much tech-meets-fashion, and it seems likely that the overlap between wearable technology and clothing will continue to be explored at Open Style Lab as the designers and engineers become braver in experimenting to meet the needs of their co-creators.
Accessible to all
Each year, some of the solutions, or parts of them, have gone into production to be used in clothing more widely. The organisation’s mantra is accessibility, and Grace Jun, its executive director, stresses that this is about everyone, not just disabled people. Her view is that it is not necessarily helpful to design clothing for disabled people, but instead, clothes designers should consider how their designs work for everyone. Marrying technology with fashion is a good way to do this.
There is an echo here of the spread of technical fabric like Polartec fleece and Gore-Tex from the specialist ‘outdoors’ market to the mass market. Walk around any large city in the rain now, and you will see any number of people wearing breathable waterproof jackets. When a product works, people want it.
The use of new fabrics and technologies to make clothing more comfortable, or deliver other benefits to users, can only benefit all of us in the long term. Open Style Lab may be ahead of the curve, but it seems likely that we will see innovations from there become mainstream over the next few years, as well as new technology being used in exciting and innovative ways. AI in clothes? Why not?