Open Style Lab on Inclusive Design

A seamless shirt for a child with autism who would often rip shirts apart, conductive socks that allow activist Christina Mallon, whose arms are paralyzed, to type with her feet, self-folding fabric for a client without fine motor skills- These are a few of the recent creations that have come out of Open Style Lab, a collaboration between designers, occupational therapists, and people with disabilities. Through university courses and workshops, the lab creates clothing and objects for the needs of people who are often overlooked by mainstream brands.

Executive Director Grace Jun explains, “Creativity at its highest form celebrates human value,” and ultimately, their programs are not only about products, but also about experiences. The Open Style Lab process is deeply collaborative, and teams are thoughtfully constructed. Grace sees herself almost as “a Tinder matchmaker for creatives,” linking people based on needs, skills, and expertise, but also with the awareness that these people will form a unique relationship.

Material credits to: Hong Kong Polytechnic University Institute of Clothing and textiles

In a recent Open Style Lab course through Parsons, students were paired with people living in a Manhattan rehabilitation center. As the budding designers navigated their schedules to make the trek and visit residents in their space, they gained a new appreciation of the pacing and customs of daily life in an assisted living facility. The discrepancies between their viewpoints highlighted what is overlooked by being mobile. Grace is adamant that these experiences are powerful, “When you’ve felt it in your bones, you don’t really forget it.” Not only does this intimate sharing influence their designs, it affects how the collaborators experience space. Since joining the lab, she has observed a shift in herself, a way of viewing the world that constantly questions what is broadly accessible. Now, when she walks into a room, she immediately notices whether the space is wide enough for a wheelchair. Are there steps? Are there tough angles that might be difficult to maneuver? The exchange of perspectives inherent in the Lab’s processes allows for an empathy and learning that can outlast even the products they create.

Because clients are part of the design team, products are not only practical, but also communicate personality. Recently, the lab designed a punk-fringe-completely-customized leather jacket for Wanda, a woman who fondly remembered her days in a rock band. Wanda lives with Parkinson’s, and her goal was to dress herself, despite tremors. Together, the team created a jacket with a color-coded lining so Wanda could determine what part to put on first, and an outer layer made of soft lambskin and covered in glam 3D printed studs. While function leads design, aesthetics are important to the work of the Lab, and looking good is never sacrificed. As Grace puts it, clothing signifies social standing, has cultural implications, and is “one of the highest forms of expression.”

While the Lab creates products that are highly personalized to an individual’s specific needs, context, and style, they also strive to cater to a wide range of people. According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 4 American adults lives with a disability that impacts major life activities. This is a market that has yet to be tapped into by many conventional outlets, and yet has the potential to be big business with meaningful impact. Open Style Lab aims to construct design that can be scaled and replicated for a broader audience, and even be inclusive of people without disabilities- for example, are there tools that might serve not just wheelchair riders, but bike riders as well? Grace sees making products that are sexy and appealing for a variety of people as key to reducing stigma around disability.

The conversation around inclusion and accessibility is growing. Models with disabilities were recently profiled by Teen Vogue, Tommy Hilfiger launched Tommy Adaptive, a line for people with disabilities, and IKEA recently partnered with the Open Style Lab for a design hackathon. Not only visually representing more diversity, but also employing the expertise of people with different abilities in the making process is the next frontier, and Open Style Lab is on the leading edge.

Text by Allegra Chen-Carrel

Images by Justin Ryan Kim and courtesy of Open Style Lab