The design industry has significant potential to help disrupt stereotypes of older persons and individuals with disabilities. This panel featured individuals from a variety of perspectives who work primarily in fashion design. The panelists were each given the opportunity to introduce themselves and give a synopsis of their backgrounds and experiences. Subsequently, Brendan McCarthy, the director of the undergraduate Fashion Design Program for Systems and Materiality and an assistant professor of fashion in the Systems and Society Pathway at the Parsons School of Design, moderated an open discussion among the speakers and the workshop participants.
Parsons School of Design
Recognizing the value of unusual backgrounds and partnerships, McCarthy said, Parsons is introducing new methodologies to challenge its students’ approaches to design. For example, in a pathway called Systems and Society, students examine critical social issues for specific communities in relation to fashion design. Instead of simply focusing on a garment as the outcome, students design entire fashion systems, from sourcing to distribution, using a more holistic approach. Within this approach, co-design is becoming increasingly important. McCarthy
said that the students in his thesis class were first challenged to establish their individual frameworks of values: who they are, where they came from, what communities they care about, and what they believe in. As a result, the students developed a wide range of ideas for their design projects and brought in a variety of people to co-design with, including Iraq War veterans, a Brazilian grandfather with Parkinson’s disease, formerly incarcerated Americans, a family of Mexican-American immigrants whose parents came to the United States as undocumented immigrants, survivors of sexual assault, an African-American woman who was deeply invested in Japanese anime and manga, a Korean grandmother who was “obsessed” with her dog, and a dad who loved basketball and denim. However, these partnerships really were not unusual at all, McCarthy said; instead, these collaborations were natural, as they emanated from the students themselves once they thought about whom they wanted to design with instead of whom they wanted to design for.
Overall, McCarthy said, co-design principles challenge students to think about what human-centered design means. He attributed the students’ success, in part, to an emphasis on collaboration and the use of interdisciplinary methods. Professors at Parsons have a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines (e.g., product design, engineering medicine, health care), and McCarthy pointed to his own unusual career path: he was a mathematics major in college and subsequently worked in finance on Wall Street before changing course and working at Donald Judd’s museum in Marfa, Texas, where he eventually studied art and architecture. “That is creating an enormous amount of diversity in the outcomes,” he said, “but it is also changing the landscape of the communities that fashion can engage and does engage.”
In addition, McCarthy said there is a major shift at Parsons toward developing unusual external partnerships and relationships. For example, Parsons is collaborating with the United Nations on sexual health and reproductive rights in Kenya. Parsons also had a class whose students redesigned the hospital gown in collaboration with older patients as well as individuals representing hospital and laundry systems; they then partnered with a healthwear company that will be manufacturing and testing the use of the gowns in real medical systems. McCarthy said that these partnerships lead to new conversations “about the possibilities to not only disrupt stereotypes, but to rethink what is possible with respect to inclusivity.”
Open Style Lab
Jun is an alumna of Parsons, an assistant professor in the School of Fashion, and the executive director of Open Style Lab,1 a nonprofit organization with a mission to make clothing (and sometimes wearable technologies) accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities (e.g., through aging, injury, or illness). Jun said that she challenges her students to think about the life course (including the increased risk for disability with age) and what the body itself means. As part of this work, she is exploring how to expand education and, perhaps most importantly, how to raise awareness about the importance of accessible clothing. For example, she said, if an individual has limited dexterity and it takes them 25 minutes to put on a shirt to go to work, then accessible clothing may be a more significant need for that individual than other more complex technologies.
Jun runs a 10-week summer program that invites individuals from various disciplines (e.g., designers, engineers, occupational and physical therapists) to come and co-design with a person with a disability. She said that getting to know the person and his or her ecosystem of needs and desires is at the core of the methodology:
For example, we had April, who is an advocate and teacher, who wanted to share her life of having [a] spinal cord injury. The students really just kind of went with her. They went to see concerts. They followed her and shadowed her home. They asked her about her husband, how he felt about some of the clothes that she had. Does she like them? How much money was she spending on clothing, such as gloves that wore out because she would either have them torn or abraised through using her wheelchair?
When following this approach, the students need to consider fabric choice and the use of different types of tools or technologies; they also have the opportunity to fit and test their designs with the client and the larger community. Co-design classes, Jun said, enable individuals with disabilities to describe what disability means in their own voices and inspire students “to design in a different way that they also see themselves wanting in the near future.” Jun concluded by describing fashion as a tool for greater identity and self expression, and by saying that the development of better assistive devices can help to empower a greater sense of dignity.
Shalethia Gable Washington
Washington is a 2017 alumna of Parsons, and she participated in the Systems and Society course described previously. She expressed concern about how recent conversations about disrespecting veterans (e.g., the National Football League and the national anthem) often seem to be missing the voices of the veterans themselves. Therefore, for this course she worked with five Iraq War veterans to help them define themselves apart from how they may be described by others (e.g., politicians, film makers, and the makers of role-playing video games).
Throughout this process, we tried several different ways to try to communicate their story through fashion. For me, I am not really in the business of selling clothes or just making collections just to make beautiful clothes. For me, fashion is about really having the opportunity to make clothes speak and to have them say something that is more than just aesthetics. This project was really about disrupting the negative stereotypes that people may have about veterans or assumptions that people may make about veterans’ lives when they transition back into civilian life.
Washington introduced the participants to blind contour drawing, a process in which the individuals can only look at the object they are drawing and cannot look at or lift the pen from the paper they are drawing on. Looking at the blind contour drawings of military uniforms by both the veterans and a group of civilians, she observed that the veterans took much longer to complete their drawings and included more specific details. Washington said she then used the drawings to “get away from the traditional norms of fashion, of creating clothes, and really try to create a new form of fashion” by using the drawings as patterns that she used to create clothing. “The point of that,” she concluded, “was to really just disrupt society’s notion of how we see veterans and also a chance for them to define themselves.”
Fashion For All (FFORA)
Jones reflected on how fashion can help to change perceptions of disability. As an example, she showed a 1978 leaflet from the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom called Your Sight and the NHS,2 which stated “glasses are complex scientific instruments with a medical
2 For more information, see http://journal.sciencemuseum.org.uk/browse/issue-07/rather-unspectacular (accessed December 18, 2017).
purpose: to enable visual clarity and optical functionality.” In contrast, Jones next showed a 2014 magazine cover on which a fashion model is featured wearing non-prescription lenses. She also shared an image of Aimee Mullins, an athlete, model, and actress, wearing prosthetic blades on a 1998 cover of Dazed and Confused magazine. “In this image,” she said, “I think it is striking how beautiful her blades look against her form. It is just so ergonomic and so sumptuous and a perfect example of design done well.”
When Jones was a student at Parsons, she delved into co-design with wheelchair users, an approach she calls seated design.3 Her interest in this area began as a result of 2012 conversation with a family member with a disability who told her he did not feel included in the fashion design system. Jones posted an ad on Craigslist asking people with disabilities to speak with her about their lifestyles and what problems they had with clothing, and she met Ronnie, a woman with multiple sclerosis who allowed Jones to take extensive measurements of her body:
One thing I had never considered before is how I had never approached design from the seated body. I have always approached the standing mannequin or a model on a runway. I had never thought about design seated. We measured her buttocks, her knee spread, her elbows, from the back of her neck down to her popliteal crease. We measured everything. And then I did the same with some friends, too. I measured everything. I measured a number of individuals to see how our bodies change from the standing and the seated position. Of course, what I discovered was when we sit down, [. . .] there is a lot of fabric that needs to be there that isn’t there. There are also other things, such as our trouser legs not falling appropriately. There were so many discrepancies with our measurements that I thought, my goodness, I have been learning tailoring for standing bodies, but it doesn’t apply when we sit down.
As a result of this experience, Jones created a manual for creating clothing with seated design in mind, including elements such as different entry points to garments and modular parts. Furthermore, Jones is launching her brand FFORA based on these experiences and her own questions: What is a world that is designed for all, and can we achieve it?
Shein has worked with UNIQLO for more than 20 years in Europe, Japan, and the United States. Referring back to McCarthy’s comments
about unusual backgrounds and career paths, Shein noted his own background in cultural anthropology and East Asian studies and said that he met the founder of UNIQLO on a bus, which began his relationship with the company. Shein also referred to Jones’s presentation by noting that while UNIQLO has sponsored both wheelchair-using and non-wheelchair-using athletes, they all wear the same athletic clothing. The focus has been on garments’ performance and functionality (e.g., moisture-wicking ability), but not as much about fit. “I think that is something I need to look into a little bit more,” he said.
Shein focused his remarks on UNIQLO’s experience with older customers. He began by showing a married, retired couple in Japan who have developed a large following on Instagram under the name Bonpon511.4 The couple posts pictures of themselves wearing coordinated outfits, and UNIQLO has sponsored them by providing clothing. However, Shein noted that UNIQLO does not design for any particular demographic. The company calls its line LifeWear5: “simple apparel with a not-so simple-purpose: to make your life better,” and it uses the tagline “UNIQLO LifeWear. Simple made better.” The idea for LifeWear came from the idea that there are many types of clothing (e.g., sportswear, casual wear, athleisure, formal wear), and so the company wanted to make clothing “for your life.” When designing clothing, the company’s designers use the “LifeWear filter,” which looks at three aspects of clothing: sustainability, innovation (e.g., through fiber technology), and making people’s lives better. Shein discussed the aging population of Japan, including the tendency of older Japanese to be isolated, and he described a project in which his team at UNIQLO set up mini stores in senior centers and town halls:
The reaction was very positive. This is not a money maker for UNIQLO, but it is something we are going to continue to do. Our goal here is to bring UNIQLO to as many seniors as possible. This is a pretty rural area. This is not Tokyo, where there is a lot more mixing. To me, this is a true representation of what LifeWear is and can be more of.
Designers are very good at asking questions, Norregaard said, which is a good starting point for design. Early in her career, she said, she worked with Sam Farber and the team at Smart Design to design what
became OXO products based on questions about how to make kitchen products attractive, as well as comfortable and usable for people with a weak grip. With this approach, she said, looking at the outer edges of ability can make a better experience and product for everyone. Using this experience, Norregaard set out to change the way we think about aging and disability through design:
My thesis, my theory of the company that I cofounded with two other women, was that if we can design medical assistive devices in a way that would allow us to sell them in the world’s best museum stores, then we could change attitudes, hearts, and minds on what it means to use such a medical device as a cane, for example. Very visible, very normal sign of disability. Most people don’t want them. Lots of people need them.
Norregaard said the company worked with designers and engineers to define the needs and common problems of these types of products, but that there is another side related to emotion, attraction, desire, and beauty. For example, a cane is something that nobody wants, she said, but by asking users about their favorite colors, you can begin to have a conversation about what their canes might look like and how they might relate to them. Design then becomes a way to remove stigma, to allow people to talk about things that are difficult to talk about when they do not want to be stereotyped. Norregaard also reflected back on earlier discussions on unusual partnerships by showing an image of keynote speaker Liz Jackson’s bicycle, on which Jackson configured a way to accommodate her cane:
That is another really important thing about design solutions. Once you let them into the wild, then the real fun starts. People start hacking their lives. They will make whatever you are making much better in ways that you can experience on a scale that you can’t in your own lab environment, be it academic or the studio that you work in. That is fantastic.
Seeing design as a way to change attitudes led Norregaard to join SYPartners, a consultancy that uses creativity and design to transform organizations and shift mindsets and behaviors around large societal issues, such as diversity and inclusion. On the topic of bias in design, she said that “awareness is the first step to actually being able to solve things differently.” She highlighted one exercise in which a group of strangers at an event are given blank nametags and asked to choose different stickers with labels such as neat freak and entrepreneur or living with illness to apply to their nametags throughout the day. This is a simple way to experience how people look at and stereotype each other, she said, as well as a way to see your own identity in a new way.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, Norregaard continued. As a designer, she looks to the edges, to art and other industries to better understand how to address problems more creatively. For example, Norregaard talked about the video game Overwatch, a multi-person shooter game that introduced a 60-year old female character. She cited this as an example of how a video game can creatively promote inclusion and redefine what a hero can be for a broad audience. Quoting Karan Barad, Norregaard concluded with an aspiration for what design can do to help us combat stereotypes: “What if we were to recognize that differentiating is a material act that is not about radical separation, but on the contrary, about making connections and commitments?”
McCarthy thanked the panelists, began the discussion with a question about methodologies, and then opened the floor to the audience.
McCarthy asked the panelists to reflect on their different methods for approaching design. Jun said that she often looks for common denominators and added that universal design principles “have been some of the underlying bedrock for why we choose an interdisciplinary methodology.” Shein said that at UNIQLO, the designers look at what did well in the past and think about how to make it better. The company’s major successes have all been products that have somehow added some extra value to the customer’s life (e.g., to keep them a little bit warmer or to be a little bit lighter). There has always been some aspect that is not superficial, he said, and the biggest challenge is to look for that “little magical thing.” McCarthy said fashion and design can travel into unexpected places, which leads to unanticipated and unusual results:
For me, the thing that I found most exciting in the last few years is trying to figure out how do we make sure that we maintain a diverse starting point? How do we maintain access to design education? What are the tools of our spaces? What do they look like? And how do we make sure as many different people from as many different communities are engaging them critically?
Washington observed that all of the designers on the panel approach design as a way to solve a problem. However, she said that fashion has missed the mark when it comes to appreciating the cultures they draw inspiration from:
When we think about sustainability, we think about how we are trying to monitor and manage the amount of things that we are actually using, but we don’t actually think about the cultures that we’re using at the same time. There is a lot of fashion out there that is really cultural appropriating. I think it is really sad. A lot of the times, those cultures are oppressed in a way. When we have these cultural appropriation collections, we completely ignore the problems that are going on within those communities. I think it is really important that everyone on this panel is avoiding that route and actually approaching design through solution-based ideas.
One workshop participant asked how designers help older persons or individuals with disabilities understand how their lives connect to the designer’s work. Jones responded that she asked herself those same questions as she started her new company (which focuses on durable products such as handbags and other items that can be used on mobility devices). In order to connect with the customer, she said, you first need to take a systems approach:
I have to understand how a wheelchair is bought and sold and what those parts look like and then [communicating about] that. You are then trying to convince the fashion customer, who may not understand the needs of someone who needs durable equipment, how the two can go hand in hand. So, I think it is about really tapping into how that system works and finding different points of distribution, where you can tie it all together.
Forging Intersectional Partnerships
Fernando Torres-Gil of the University of California, Los Angeles, said that while some may dismiss design and fashion as “frivolous and secondary or tertiary” to other more pressing priorities, the panel effectively showed how it is integral to “how we feel about ourselves and how the world views us.” Therefore, he asked, how can designers connect with advocacy groups and social movements? Jones said that like the “nothing about us without us” movement, relationships such as those between designers and advocacy groups all start with individual connections. She encouraged continued conversations between the advocacy and the design worlds.
McCarthy agreed, emphasizing the importance of forging unusual partnerships that help all parties to recognize their synergies, reinvent methodological approaches, and have critical engagement across sectors. He thought the workshop itself—the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Forum on Aging, Disability, and Indepen-
dence holding an event sponsored by AARP at the Parsons School of Design—represented a critical convening and a starting point for furthering such partnerships and connections. Shein agreed with the importance of the workshop, noting his excitement when he was invited to participate. He said that the aging demographic represents a huge market and that he would like to do more with this market, but he did not know where or how to start the conversation.
Erwin Tan of AARP commented on the opportunities to systemically create alliances that are intersectional. For example, he said that there has been an increase in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health for small businesses that address the needs of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, he encouraged the panelists to think about how their products potentially improve the lives of these individuals. He also noted that there may be opportunities for alliances between the labor force involved in making garments and the end users, such as student movements like United Students Against Sweatshops.6 In this way, he said, there may be potential for creating alliances between higher educational institutions and companies with a social mission.
Jun agreed, noting that the Parsons’ Materiality Pathway engages big brand name companies; these companies donate fabric and materials, which are shared with students who have financial needs. Jun further noted that Open Style Lab is a nonprofit entity and receives donated fabrics from Woolmark and Polartech. She added that the lab’s fellows who have disabilities or who come from different career backgrounds (e.g., engineering) often are the driving force to change products. Shein added that UNIQLO recycles as much as it can from its customers and also donates excess fabric to different schools. It also recently started an exchange program where high-level store employees visit factories and the factory workers come to work in the stores in an effort to give all the store employees a better understanding of the entire process. Norregaard commented that this type of cultural perspective within a large organization is very important. “It becomes a matter of values and experience within the organization,” she said. “That is what actually propels the effort and the understanding.”
Role of the Veterans Project in Addressing Distress
Ken Brummel-Smith from the American Geriatrics Society commented on Washington’s veterans project. He said that he perceived the drawings as reflecting distress and asked how the veterans responded to seeing their own drawings as well as the drawings of the non-veterans.
“Could this be a way to help veterans cope with some of the onslaught of feelings that were left over by their experiences?” he asked. Washington agreed that this process could be used as a coping mechanism, stating that when she started the project, she had targeted support groups for posttraumatic stress disorder, asking if she could sit in and hear the veterans’ stories:
Doing this process with them, it brought out a lot of their own stories. It brought out a lot of their own experiences that they weren’t really comfortable talking about on an everyday situation, especially to their family and to their friends. While doing the drawing, a lot of them were just talking about their experience. In a way, it was almost kind of therapeutic for them, because it was an emotional release that they never really get a chance to say.
As a result of this experience, Washington said, she realized that she had previously been reluctant to talk to the veterans in her own family about their experiences. Overall, she said, she learned that “in reality, they need someone to talk to. Sometimes you just need to listen.”
Sustainability and Affordability
Linda Flowers from AARP’s Public Policy Institute asked about the sustainability principles that Parsons students follow, such as sourcing materials (e.g., making sure they are not coming from places where people are being exploited), because that could affect their ability to make their designs affordable. She acknowledged, however, that pricing in the real world is “what the market will bear.” “Is there a way to continue to follow through with those principles and still make these garments affordable to a mass audience of people who are older or have disabilities?” she asked. Jones admitted she has spent a lot of time and resources thinking about the dilemma of trying to be environmentally friendly while also taking into account the fact that the people who need her products often have limited financial resources. She approaches the issue by being transparent about how to subsidize costs, she said. She continued:
We know the cost of goods. We know things are expensive. We know someone’s life is at stake somewhere on the line. . . . For me, it is about saying “This is how much it costs if you want this iconic leather bag, but just know that it costs this much because it is cheaper for someone else down the line who can afford it.” Having that upfront model of “You are paying for this”—almost like [the] Tom’s model, in a way, but knowing that you are giving back to someone else. It is not a charity. It is just doing good.
Jones added that there are other ways to approach this dilemma, such as by employing individuals with disabilities in the workforce. Washington used overstock fabric for her project and admitted that previously she had not thought about where the fabric was coming from, who was producing it, how long it took to arrive, and how much the shipping costs would be. The experience, she said, made her think more about the sustainability of the fabrics she uses.
McCarthy commented that discussions around sustainability tend to focus only on the materials themselves instead of on human sustainability and principles of longevity across the design system. Shifting to a focus on values at the individual or community level can become a driver for all of the systemic decisions (e.g., sourcing, labor, manufacturing, media and communication). In that way, he said, all of the decisions become linked, and the conversation changes away from “how can we scale this if it is currently expensive?” to rethinking the entire system, which may ultimately result in a cheaper product.