Designing an apparel strategy

Faculty member Christine Berg, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, is always on the lookout for opportunities for occupational therapy students to collaborate with other students in the Washington University community. Berg found an opportunity when she attended the iTeach Symposium in January 2016. Held every two years, the symposium brings together Washington University faculty and instructional staff from across disciplines to share insights and ideas on teaching and learning. There she met Jennifer Ingram, a senior lecturer in fashion design at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Ingram was looking for a project that her students could collaborate on with students at the School of Medicine.

“I teach mostly 3-D classes in which the students take their drawings and make them into the prototypes or sample garments. They typically design for the ‘ready-to-wear’ market, but I also teach a module where the students design for specialty markets such as formal wear, swimwear and haute couture,” shares Ingram. “Christine and I came up with the idea of having teams of students design garments for a different specialty market – clients with mobility or vision impairments – and specific wardrobe needs based on their occupations.”

During the summer, Berg and Ingram piloted their project with Katie Banister who survived an auto accident in 1990 that left her a quadriplegic. She and her husband, Steve, co-founded Access-4-All, Inc., whose mission is to educate and empower others through motivational speaking and disability education. Banister is dressed by an attendant and can shop in most clothing stores, but wanted a more tailored look for her various speaking engagements and professional appearances.

“Katie doesn’t need a lot of functionality in her garments, but she has trouble finding structured, button-down shirts off the rack that fit her. Because she is sitting, those types of shirts tend to bunch up and are not flattering,” Berg says. “On our first meeting, Katie took Jennifer and me into her closet to show us what works and what doesn’t to help us better understand what exactly she was looking for.”

“My grandmother had multiple sclerosis and used a wheelchair so I thought I knew what to expect as far as what the clothing needed to do to work for Katie,” says Ingram. “But listening to Katie’s specific needs really challenged me as a designer to think outside the box. That’s what I wanted my students to do with this project – think beyond aesthetic beauty and address their clients’ needs in terms of functionality.”

With the needs assessment complete, Ingram created nine sketches of shirt options for Banister featuring flattering A-line silhouettes, three-quarter length sleeves and details around the collar. Berg shopped at secondhand stores for sample clothing. Together, they went fabric shopping to find structured fabrics without stretch to create the crisp, tailored look Banister wanted. They met with Banister a second time to review and refine the designs. On their final meeting with Banister, Berg and Ingram presented the designs and discussed the outcomes of their pilot project before offering it to students as an independent study in the fall. When they did, there were many OT students interested in taking the Sam Fox School’s Apparel Strategy course.

“We ended up with eight teams consisting of an OT student, a fashion design student and an actual client. The class met once a week for seven weeks, with the first 15 minutes typically consisting of a lecture or an activity to help the students gain awareness of the mobility and environmental challenges their clients faced,” says Berg, who brought wheelchairs, goggles and other equipment to class to simulate impairments for the fashion design students to experience firsthand. “The OT students then took them throughout Bixby Hall so they could start to think about how clothing factors into mobility in the everyday situations their clients encounter.”

The remaining class time consisted of mentoring the student teams one-on-one as they worked on their client interviews, clothing designs and solutions. The class differed from Ingram’s other courses in that the teams did not produce a prototype or sample garment. Each team followed the three-meeting model with their clients that Berg and Ingram had piloted, with the final meeting featuring a creative, gallery-style presentation in which students displayed their design portfolio and received feedback from their clients and peers.

“Christine and I were excited to see the creative designs the teams came up with for their clients. We all agreed early on there would be no Velcro used,” Ingram says. “Since fasteners are a major component of aesthetics and functionality, the students researched out-of-the-box options for their designs such as the magnetic closures found on handbags. In the end, we saw that many of the functional needs aren’t limited to people with mobility or vision impairments. The design solutions the students came up with could easily be marketed to mainstream consumers – there’s no reason to label it ‘adaptive clothing.’”

The students enjoyed not only working with a real client, but also the collaborative process itself. “The ability to work with a specific client and have a conversation about the function and aesthetics of clothing made the design process so much more meaningful,” shared Alex Giger, a third-year fashion design student. “I loved getting to know my client, Jessi, and my OT partner, Berrit Goodman. I learned so much about what clothing can do – it really has the ability to change the course of a day, boost self-confidence and provide a positive in someone’s life. That is what I hope my future design practice will do for my clients.”

Looking ahead, Berg and Ingram plan to offer the project as a module of the Fashion Collaboration Studio Course in fall 2017 with another collaborator on board – students from the School of Engineering & Applied Science. “We are hoping they can help us not only design different closures, but also make prototypes of the actual hardware,” Berg says. “Who knows, we might end up creating something new for the fashion industry!”

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