By Ian Ruder with Andrea Dalzell
The concept behind Open Style Lab sounds like a spinoff of the hit fashion reality show, Project Runway: a designer, an engineer and an occupational or physical therapist are paired with a client and tasked with designing a garment that improves their quality of life. The teams have 10 weeks to get to know and work with their client before a winner is selected at a final showcase.
But there’s one big difference that separates Open Style Lab from Project Runway and elevates it from a fun way to pass a weekday night to one of the more exciting developments in the fashion world. That difference? All the clients are people with disabilities, and all the work and research taking place in Open Style Lab is aimed at educating the design industry and moving it toward a more inclusive understanding of disability.
“What we’re trying to do is get the next generation of design students to open up and start talking in a new vocabulary as well as get to work with the people that they fantasize about in design imagination — like the elderly or people in a wheelchair,” says Grace Jun, executive director of Open Style Lab. “Our big goal is to get the next researchers and people with disabilities to come together in one space and provide them with that experience.”
Open Style Lab started in 2014 as a 10-week interdisciplinary public service program held in the summer at MIT in Massachusetts. That summer program is now run out of Parsons School of Design in New York City, and Open Style Lab has added a biannual class for Parsons students that uses the same team-based structure.
Both programs seek out clients with all types of disabilities and have produced a stunning array of unique garments that speaks to the potential of inclusive design. For instance, a heated bomber jacket that could be adjusted via Bluetooth by its paraplegic user while he rides his motorcycle in Slovenia; or a stylish blazer made of a high-tech breathable fabric with quad-friendly pull-down flaps designed for a man with a high-level SCI who struggles with temperature control. These kinds of results are often on the cutting edge of fashion, design and technology.
By working across disability, Jun says she hopes to instill new perspectives and a deeper understanding of how future products can be designed in a more inclusive way into her students and the fellows who take the summer program. She has seen how the personal interactions with clients can transform even the most seasoned fellows in the summer program.
“Though they are professionals or researchers or have graduated from college, most of them come to me and say, ‘I don’t know how to ask [the client] about this or that,’” she says. “I tell them, ‘Look, he’s got to go to the bathroom and he can only use one hand, just figure it out and just ask him. Don’t worry about it, just do it.’”
Jun’s passion for Open Style Lab and its mission is obvious, and based on the enthusiasm of her students at a recent showcase, its infectious. That’s a good thing for the future of inclusive design.
“This field is starting to gain popularity,” she says. “It’s definitely changing and there is a big change in the way we think about social responsibility.”
While the spring and fall classes are restricted to Parsons students, the 10-week summer program is open to any professionals in the fields of design, engineering or therapy. Both program options need interested members of the disability community to serve as clients. If you are interested in either option, or simply want to find out more, visit www.openstylelab.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.