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MIT’s Open Style Lab aims to design functional and fashionable clothing for people with disabilities

Friday, December 20, 2013

Fashion sans Frontiers

We’ve all had one of those days. You’re wearing slippers to work, but it’s not Wear Slippers to Work day. Now imagine having one of those days every day. Welcome to the world of the disabled, who because of physical limits and health complications are stuck cobbling together whatever clothing works and leaving fashion, professionalism, and pride behind.

With the launch of the Open Style Lab, however, that may be changing. Grace Teo, a graduate student in the Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), and co-chair Alice Tin are bringing the minds and skills of fashion designers together with engineers to design clothing solutions for a group of 10 disabled clients. The Open Style Lab, a 10-week innovation challenge slated to run from June 6-August 9, 2014, has already identified a full slate of clients and is currently accepting applications from designers and engineers who wish to participate. [Apply here: http://www.openstylelab.org/]

Teo and Tin hope the Open Style Lab will eventually lead to commercialized products that meet the needs of the disabled. “The entire fashion industry is based on an ideal that many people don’t fit,” says Teo. “We’re hoping to inspire the industry to think past that.”

Gotta Look Smart

The original spark for the Open Style Lab came to Teo when she was doing a rotation in a Boston hospital, a mandatory 3 month commitment for HST PhD students that helps them learn to communicate with doctors and patients to better understand their needs. During a chat with two women with multiple sclerosis, she couldn’t help but notice their clothing. “They were both wearing the same thing,” she says. “Their sweaters were plain, no buttons, no hooks. Even their jewelry was rigid, C-shaped metal bands.”

When she asked the women what they missed most about being healthy, one responded: “I miss my independence.”

Teo, who dreamed of being a wardrobe designer as a child and embarked on an academic career in chemical engineering because she thought it might eventually help her find her way to becoming a make-up artist, interpreted this answer broadly. Independence goes beyond mobility; it includes individual expression.

“I thought, wow, this is a problem we can solve, and it doesn’t need years of research,” says Teo, who with Tin has modeled the Open Style lab after MIT’s popular D-Lab (Development through Dialog, Design and Dissemination) which brings students together to design solutions for people in poverty and put them into practice. Similarly, Open Style Lab clients can expect to receive a professionally designed, custom product at the end of the summer.

Each client will be matched with a multi-disciplinary team of three students, including both fashion designers and engineers, and two mentors, one a design professional and the other an engineering professional. The teams will then work together to design, review, prototype and perfect solutions. “We see the clients as educators,” says Tin, who acts as the main interface with clients for the Lab. “They understand their individual problems better than anyone else.”

Accessible Style

Open Style Lab client Steven Hirsch, associate professor of classics and history at Tufts University, lost his ability to walk 16 years ago to an extreme bout of Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that damages the motor nerves. His hands also have limited function. While he can still manage with what he calls “normal” shirts and jackets, pants and shoes pose a problem. “For 16 years, I’ve been wearing shiny, tear-away basketball pants to work,” he says. The snaps that run the length of the leg allow Hirsch to use a urinal independently. “It would be nice if there were pants that looked more formal, or even blue jeans. But it doesn’t exist.”

Hirsch is also stuck wearing size 13 slippers to accommodate the swollen and easily wounded feet that come with reduced circulation. “I look sort of like Hugh Heffner, always in lounge wear,” he says.

According to Teo, client concerns range from medical, such as temperature regulation and skin protection, to fit and function, such as flattering shoes, pants or shirts that can be slipped on and off easily.

“We have a growing number of people with disabilities in our society,” says Hirsch. “It’s a market, and people have taste and preferences. The Open Style Lab could make it possible to get beyond just settling.”

The Open Style Lab has already recruited Christopher Bevans, an award-winning fashion designer who is also a Director’s Fellow with the MIT Media Lab, to participate as a mentor and speaker. Teo and Tin plan to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a 2015 session and to chronicle the 2014 session in a documentary. “We would like to see this program run year after year,” says Teo. “But the main aim is that at the end of the summer, clients will have something they can bring home and wear.”

The Open Style Lab is currently supported by MIT Office of the Dean of Graduate Education and the MIT Community Service Fund and is the first project to be funded by the Arthur C. Smith Memorial Student Life Fund.