Open Style Lab: Bringing Fashion to the Disabled Community
The accessible fashion nonprofit proves that clothes are more than just looking pretty
March 23, 2018 | Irene Park
Fashion is a lot like cooking or engineering: Most people assume that if you want to say you’re “in” any of those fields, you have to be really, really good.
But if you crack an egg in a pan and fry it, you’re cooking. If you place a rubber band around your thumb and index finger and use it as a slingshot, you’re engineering.
And if you put on clothing in any meaningful way — heck, if you’ve ever just put on clothing — guess what? That’s fashion.
The misconception that fashion is only for the most dedicated of designer chasers is why fashion often ranks low on the list of concerns for people with disabilities. After all, people will say, what’s looking pretty compared to getting a properly configured wheelchair or making sure my insurance covers my medications?
Such thinking quickly goes to the wayside when you consider the often considerable dressing challenges experienced by people with disabilities. It’s tricky to pull on pants without standing up, or button a shirt with limited mobility in your hands.
Throw in all those functions of life that require you to not just having any clothing on, but being properly dressed — like job interviews, weddings, and funerals — and you can easily understand how not having many sartorial options negatively impacts one’s self-confidence, social and professional success, and sense of self.
“I’ve always wanted a business suit as part of my professional wardrobe, but I’ve never been able to find one that I could wear,” says Emily Ladau, an OSL fall 2017 client. “Traditional suit jackets and the physical limitations of my disability don’t mix.”
Open Style Lab (OSL) at Parsons School of Design in New York City is actively striving to change this. Led by executive director and Parsons assistant professor of fashion Grace Jun, the nonprofit pairs design and tech students to create unique wearables for clients with disabilities. Not only do these articles of clothing and accessories represent one’s personality and taste, but they also actually function in a way that fits and even improves the individual’s lifestyle.
“Fashion provides a space for the self and ownership of the body,” Jun says. And that’s paramount for people with disabilities, especially those who are self-conscious about their bodies and disabilities.
Another key aspect of OSL’s model: clients are actively involved in the design process. This is a key difference from most mass-produced accessible fashion, where products are created without consulting the disabled clientele they seek to serve. This too often results in a severe disconnect between how nondisabled people perceive accessibility needs, and what disabled individuals actually need.
“That smile we show when we look into a mirror and see a piece of garment that illustrates our individuality — Open Style Lab is breaking down the barriers that have kept those smiles from the faces of millions of people with different qualities and abilities,” says Quemuel Arroyo, an OSL Summer 2017 client.
OSL’s work doesn’t stop with just making the clothing. It’s laying the foundation for the kind of collaborative, interdisciplinary design that accessible fashion — and really, any accessibility-related service — needs to truly meet client needs. It does so by bringing in top players in accessible design, technology, and healthcare to collectively provide their expertise to the student designers.
In related fashion, OSL is also conducting valuable accessible design research, collecting data both on individual garments created and the design process itself. Such research lays the foundation for future work in accessible services at large, not just by fashion brands, but even companies like Lufthansa.
“Overall, Open Style Lab is a thought leader on raising awareness for the lack of functional yet stylish clothing,” Jun says. “We are an inclusive team from all disciplines and walks of life. From disability activists like Christina Mallon to a managing partner of an architecture design firm, the people who shape OSL are truly diverse. In partnership with Parsons School of Design, we see a future that is accessible.”
If you have a disability and you’re interested in volunteering as a client, visit the website at http://www.openstylelab.com to find out more details about OSL’s yearlong programs. Designers who are not Parsons students can become involved by applying for the more intensive Summer Fellowship iteration of OSL’s fall and spring offerings.
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Irene Park is a freelance writer and graphic designer, producing content for clients including Open Style Lab at Parsons School of Design.