Fashion’s Newest Frontier: The Disabled and the Displaced

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Designs by Lucy Jones, who won the Parsons graduate prize in 2015 for a clothing collection for people in wheelchairs.

Six years ago Maura Horton, a housewife in Raleigh, N.C., received a call from her husband, Don, the assistant football coach at North Carolina State. He was on the road for a game and having so much trouble buttoning his shirt, he had to ask a player (Russell Wilson, now the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks) for help.

Mr. Horton had received a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease four years before, and symptoms were starting to get worse.

So Mrs. Horton did what anyone would do these days when faced with such a problem: She searched Google for "easy-to-close shirt." And found … not much.

"And then I looked at my iPad cover and saw it had these really small magnets, and thought, 'Well, what about that?'" she says now — a patent, a company and 22 shirt styles later.

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MagnaReady makes shirts with magnetic closures instead of buttons.

Mrs. Horton (who once designed children's wear but stopped to start her family) and her company, MagnaReady, are part of a new sub-sector in fashion: what Chaitenya Razdan, the founder and chief executive of Care and Wear, has christened "healthwear." The sector takes the tools and techniques (and trends) of fashion and applies them to the challenges created by illness and disability.

And healthwear is simply one part of a larger movement, in which classically trained designers (and those they work with) are rethinking the basic premise, and promise, of fashion itself. Call it solution-based design.

Though fashion is often dismissed as frivolous and self-indulgent, this growing niche suggests that rather than being part of the problem — and a symbol of the multiple divisions in society (political, personal, economic) — it can actually come up with some of the answers.

In May, for example, Angela Luna was named a designer of the year at Parsons the New School for Design for a graduate collection of convertible garments that used outerwear to address specific issues of the refugee crisis: shelter, flotation, visibility. So there was a hip utility coat that could become a tent, and a padded jacket that became a sleeping bag. One anorak had a built-in flotation device; another, a baby carrier.

And she followed Lucy Jones, who won designer of the year in 2015 for a collection that focused on minimal, elegant clothes for wheelchair users, taking into account both the altered proportions necessitated by being permanently seated, and the challenges of getting pieces on and off when one is physically impaired — or taking care of someone who is.

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Anglea Luna's graduate collection from Parsons featuring clothes for refugees. Here, a coat that becomes a small tent. Credit Jessica Richmond

"It started when a professor of mine challenged us to do something that would change the world," Ms. Jones said. "I thought: 'How can I do that? This is fashion.'"

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A view of the jacket assembled into a tent. Credit Jessica Richmond

But then she began talking to a 14-year-old cousin who has a condition called hemiplegia, which means that one side of his body is significantly weaker than the other. He told her he was being teased at school for not being able to do up his pants by himself, and how embarrassed he was. "I couldn't believe no one had tried to fix that," she said. "But then I realized it was a much bigger problem."

She met with United Cerebral Palsy of New York City and started conducting focus groups. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing," she said. "Something everyone does — get dressed and undressed — should not be a challenge."

Mr. Razdan had a similar epiphany in 2014, while he was working at an internet start-up following a stint at Goldman Sachs. He noticed that some family members who were wrestling with cancer were walking around with what looked like the ankle section of tube socks on their upper arms.

The socks, it turned out, were being used as not particularly attractive covers for peripherally inserted central catheters, semi-permanent intravenous lines in the upper arm, known as PICC lines, which allow easy vein access for chemotherapy and extended antibiotic administration, among other uses.

After his mother, an anesthesiologist, mentioned to a former colleague at Johns Hopkins that her son had an idea to improve the cover, Mr. Razdan teamed up with a friend's wife who had been working as a designer at Kensie, a contemporary brand for girls.

Together they created what is effectively a brightly colored sleeve, not unlike a truncated version of what runners and basketball players now use, except that it is made with an antimicrobial treatment and comes with a mesh window to make dressings visible and let them breath. It can be customized in a variety of ways, and makes the wearer look like LeBron James (kind of) instead of a patient.

This was followed by shirts — polo, baseball, plus a zippered blouse — that allow for the insertion and removal of central lines and ports, as well as a collaboration with Ms. Jones on gloves made specifically for wheelchair users. (Generally, wheelchair users adapt bicycle or batting gloves for their purposes.)

"What you wear has a profound impact on your psyche," Mr. Razdan said. "It can make you feel like yourself again at a time when it's easy to feel like things are out of your control."

Though most of the people involved in solution-based design have a missionary zeal when they talk about what they do — not just what it means for the people they reach, but also what it means for their industry and its image in society — it has not escaped any of them that it is also a significant business opportunity.

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A shirt designed for use for people with medical ports made by Care and Wear.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every five adults in the United States has a disability. "We are all at risk of having a disability at some point in our lifetime," Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the agency, said in a news release.

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