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Fashion Panel Explores Inclusive Design

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(L-R) Assistant Director of Fashion Styling Flore Morton, four-time Special Olympic U. S. National Champion in gymnastics Chelsea Werner, her mother Lisa Werner, disability fashion stylist Stephanie Thomas and founder of Enlisted Design and co-founder of Urbio Bob Oyler. Photo by Bob Toy.

Students who attended last semester’s lunchtime panel on inclusive design at 79 New Montgomery left with plenty of interesting information to digest. Academy of Art University’s School of Fashion (FSH) organized the event, which was moderated by Assistant Director of Fashion Styling Flore Morton. Before introducing the panelists, Morton asked the audience to ponder a couple of questions: “Is good design always designing for the same few? Or is it designing for people in many different groups, including people with disabilities?”

The panel featured two accomplished Academy alums, both of whom have a disability. Stephanie Thomas earned an M.F.A. from FSH’s online journalism program in 2013. Born without a right thumb and missing toes on both her feet, she’s a stylist for individuals with disabilities, including many celebrities. In addition, she started Cur8table.com, a website with a wealth of information related to dressing with disabilities based on the principles of a styling system she created. Since graduating from the School of Industrial Design in 2005, Bob Oyler founded Oakland-based Enlisted Design and co-founded Urbio, a design and manufacturing company specializing in organizational solutions for small-space living. He’s also accumulated a number of prestigious awards. Oyler suffers from hemophilia, a deadly bleeding disorder.

Chelsea Werner, a young woman with Down syndrome, and her mother, Lisa Werner, rounded out the panel. Committed to promoting inclusivity for all, Chelsea won the Special Olympic U. S. National Championships in gymnastics four times and recently broke into modeling. She’s walked the runway at New York Fashion Week and appeared in an H&M campaign.

Morton’s questions yielded an insightful discussion that covered topics such as how designers can integrate elements that serve the needs of disabled individuals into their creations; the components of good universal design; and the current state of the fashion industry when it comes to designing for those with disabilities and viewing them as legitimate customers. To get the conversation started, Morton asked Thomas to define what it means to be disabled.

“People with disabilities are people first,” said Thomas. “Everyone with disabilities defines themselves differently—that’s part of being an individual.”

She pointed out that one in five people in the world have a disability. And new members can join this group at any moment due to an accident or illness. She also noted that many disabilities are invisible.

“I think a lot of people are roaming this great earth with disabilities we don’t see,” agreed Oyler. “When I start the design process, I dive deep into really understanding who’s going to use this product, how they’re going to use it and how we can design it in a way that’s going to be a delight for them to use.”

He added that the ability to customize products using technology such as 3-D printing has radically changed his field’s ability to cater to disabled customers.

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Disability fashion stylist and Academy of Art University alumna Stephanie Thomas. Photo by Bob Toy.

“We can design the general form factor of a product and have certain parts that are customizable,” Oyler explained. “They can be customized to your fashion, your body type and your ability. It’s really about being able to go from mass production to small production.”

Changes in the world of fashion aren’t happening quite as fast. But Thomas said the industry’s attitude toward people with disabilities is definitely evolving. And she credits social media for fueling that shift.  

“I think social media is making a huge difference in normalizing and humanizing people with disabilities,” she remarked. “And it’s transforming the fashion industry because brands are now looking at micro-influencers, people with unique, dedicated segments that follow them. People with disabilities fall into those categories.”

A few high-profile designers, including Tommy Hilfiger, are paying attention. He recently launched his Tommy Adaptive clothing line. When a student asked Thomas if she felt there was a need for more like-minded designers, her response was emphatic.

“Yes, yes and yes,” she said. “We need more designers and a lot of designers are just, quite frankly, afraid of it.”

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Four-time Special Olympic U. S. National Champion in gymnastics Chelsea Werner and her mother Lisa Werner. Photo by Bob Toy.

Lisa Werner echoed that sentiment, noting that Chelsea wants to wear high heels and other age-appropriate styles. But because of her disability and small size, she’s often forced to buy children’s clothing. When she wanted heels for a fashion show, Lisa had to order a custom pair for her size-two feet. 

“I think the public wants to see a lot more diversity in fashion,” said Lisa Werner. “Once more designers become willing to take a chance and see how people respond, I think it’s going to happen more and more.”

Thomas styles several women who face the same predicament as Chelsea. She also provided examples of specific types of disabilities that require modified clothing that fashion designers should keep in mind. 

“Someone with a seated body type needs pants that are higher in the back and lower in the front so they’re not exposed,” she said. “You also need to get rid of rivets in pockets in the back of pants or a skirt because they can cause body sores on someone who’s sitting all the time.”

Oyler chimed in with a call to action for all designers, whether they’re in fashion or another field.

“These may not be the sexiest projects or get worn by an A-lister,” he said. “But they are meaningful projects for meaningful individuals. As designers, part of our responsibility is to seek out and accept opportunities to design these types of products.”