On September 15, the White House hosted Design for All, its first-ever fashion show celebrating inclusive design, assistive technology, and prosthetics. The event was attended by innovators in the differently abled fashion space, including the Alleles prosthetic cover design studio, Tommy Hilfiger with an "adaptive" collection for kids, Nike designer Tobie Hatfield whose Flyease technology makes it possible for athletes of all abilities to rep the swoosh, and blogger Mama Cáx, who chronicles her travel, style, and journey as a woman who lost her right leg after winning a battle with bone and lung cancer.
The White House event arrives at a time when the fashion world's historically restrictive definition of beauty continues to evolve in response to a social media-driven demand for realness and diversity. Model and TSS survivor/activist Lauren Wasser, who had her lower right leg amputated in 2012, was cast as one of Kenneth Cole's "Courageous Class," IMG model Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy, scored a major Beyoncé campaign, and Madeline Stuart, the first adult professional model with Down Syndrome, recently walked in her third New York Fashion Week. But visibility and representation, although major steps forward, are only part of the battle to make fashion truly inclusive. To pick up where mainstream brands leave off, a new generation of visionary designers — among them Alleles, MagnaReady, and Parsons 2015 Womenswear Designer of The Year Lucy Jones — are using the tools of the trade (and inventing some new ones) to address the challenges presented by dressing differently abled bodies.
For her part, technology-obsessed designer Lucy Jones is creating modular, avant-garde pieces for people in wheelchairs. While enrolled in a Design Communication class at Parsons, she was tasked with designing something that would change the world. Inspired by her cousin Jake, who lives with hemiplegia, and was unable to dress without his mother's support, Jones became focused on addressing issues of functionality that stem from mobility issues. "You've got a petites section, and a maternity section — I think there should be a seated section, where you can buy the same looks from the same collections, just for seated individuals," explains Jones.
With their respective backgrounds in industrial design and architecture, McCauley Wanner and Ryan Palibroda co-founded Alleles, the Canadian design studio that creates custom prosthetic covers to empower amputees through self-expression. "We are a design studio first and foremost and always have been, but at the same time we're offering a prosthetic product," says McCauley. "So, we've had to do a lot of educating within the very technical industry about the psychology of fashion, and how effective it can be for healing and recovering from an amputation, and how the individual is perceived by others when they leave the clinic." For McCauley and Ryan, a priority is to make sure style never takes a backseat to functionality, which is why their ready-to-wear pieces come in a kaleidoscopic range of colors and prints including camo, flora and fauna, and skull and crossbones.
"Fashion designers are supposed to be super creative and visual, to be able to find beauty in anything," says McCauley, yet she and Ryan have found that to be far from the case. "We look at someone with a different body type, and we see these traits as cool and beautiful. We think of all the pieces we can come up with to emphasize or showcase that beauty. It's crazy that more designers don't see that as something worth designing for, or something interesting, or something that can actually be profitable from a business standpoint," she adds.
Alleles ambassador Mama Cáx, the Brooklyn blogger who became an amputee at age 14 after kicking cancer's ass, was inspired by the White House event. "The event underscored the importance of inclusive fashion, and how stylish assistive devices and prosthetics allow people with disabilities to express themselves and decide how they want to be perceived," she explains. "Someone at the event put it best when he said that when he meets strangers, his stylish prosthetic leg has helped 'change the focus of the conversation from disability to design.' This statement could not be more true for me."
Cáx owns 12 different Alleles prosthetic leg covers, each in a unique color and electric design. She says that embracing fashionable prosthetic covers has allowed her to control the narrative around her ability, and that blogging and Instagram are powerful tools for owning her story, commanding the attention of brands, and changing the public's perception. "When I meet a stranger, they are intrigued and want to know more about the covers. Whereas before, for many, I was a case of pity, the occasional passenger on the train asking to pray with me or straight up telling me how they feel bad for me, or my favorite: 'If you pray, god will give you your leg back.'"
Most people know Nike as the brand which tells us to "Just Do It." But did you know their mission statement is actually to "Bring Inspiration and Innovation to Every* Athlete in the World," with the asterisk indicating that "If You Have a Body, You Are an Athlete"? Now, the performance giant has put its money where its mantra is with the launch of Flyease self-lacing, easy-entry-and-closure technology, the brainchild of top Nike designer Tobie Hatfield. Inspired by a personal letter from Matthew Walzer, a then-high-school junior who dreamed of attending college without requiring assistance to tie his shoes due to challenges from Cerebral Palsy, the Flyease introduces a wrap-around zipper system that eliminates the need to tie traditional laces. Hatfield worked tirelessly alongside Walzer to fulfill his dream of total autonomy. The future-forward technology has since gone on to transform life for legions of athletes who've struggled to secure their own footwear, and been applied to a number of popular Nike styles, including the LeBron Soldier 9.
Chaitenya Razdan's Care + Wear is a company that offers stylish, comfortable, antimicrobial sleeves and port access clothing for patients with PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) lines, commonly used for intravenously distributed chemotherapy and antibiotics. Prior to Razdan's advancements, patients were forced to fabricate makeshift covers from bland, bulky white tube socks. It's this untapped market that the former Goldman Sachs investment banker identifies as "healthware" — solution-oriented style which blurs the boundaries between fashion and medical design — and predicts will be a $40 billion industry.
A recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there are 53 million adults in the United States living with a disability, the most common of which is a mobility limitation, followed by a disability in thinking and/or memory, independent living, vision, and self-care. That's one out every five individuals — athletes, parents, business professionals, scientists, artists, lovers, friends — 53 million people who deserve to express themselves through the clothing they wear and find themselves limited, not by their own bodies, but by an industry that is blinded by its own narrow perception of beauty.
"We are all at risk of having a disability at some point in our lifetime," said CDC Director Tom Frieden in a press statement. Yet, you'd never guess it by the underrepresentation of differently abled folks in fashion. While there may be some variances in the logistics of how a person with Parkinson's Disease buttons a blouse, or in the technical requirements of an individual who happens to use a wheelchair, we are all united by a desire to embrace personal style for confidence and self-expression.
While it's refreshing to see fashion houses casting diverse and differently abled models to star in campaigns and walk the runway, the battle for inclusivity is far from won. "Visibility is great, because we do need more of that for this underserved demographic," say McCauley. But it's simply not enough. "To just take these models and use them for personal marketing gains or as a gimmick and not actually design anything for them is insulting on so many levels," she explains. If we really want to see the revolution on the runway, more brands must take the leap to actually creating specifically for the one in five people in our country living and thriving with differently abled bodies.
Text Jane Helpern
Images courtesy Lucy Jones and Allele