By Ian Ruder with Andrea Dalzell

This coat is designed with a slit in back to make it easier for wheelchair users to wear.

This coat is designed with a slit in back to make it easier for wheelchair users to wear.

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