The MIT Lab That’s Quietly Pioneering Fashion For Everyone

Open Style Lab wants the fashion industry to think about more bodies, more ages, and more abilities.

For Aimee Mury, finding clothing that works for her 11-year-old daughter Eliza is a challenge, and not just in the ways typical to buying clothes for a pre-adolescent girl. Eliza is autistic, with a low sensory threshold for tactile input; things like seams, loose threads, and scratchy tags are endlessly irritating to her. And while clothing lines specifically for autistic kids have cropped up in recent years, they don’t address Mury’s biggest challenge with Eliza’s clothes: She literally tears through them.


“It’s such a problem,” Mury told me last Saturday in a sun-soaked room in MIT’s International Design Center. “There’s just a sensory need to rip,” through shirts, anything with a fraying hemline, even some jeans. This problem isn’t unique to Eliza. At the New England Center for Children in Southborough, Massachusetts, where Eliza attends school as a day student, school administrators ask for clothing donations for some of the residential students, because they go through them so quickly.

Mury wound up at MIT because of an email she received through a special needs email distribution list. It was from Open Style Lab, a 10-week summer program hosted at MIT for students of design, engineering, and occupational therapy. Now in its third year, the lab takes an interdisciplinary approach to developing adaptive wear for people with disabilities. That can range from wheelchair users with multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy, to people with neurological disabilities like Eliza.

For the summer program, the lab divides the students into groups and matches them up with local clients to develop a prototype of a piece of clothing that meets their specific needs. For Eliza, that meant a shirt that is seamless, compressive, has no fray-able hem lines, and is virtually indestructible. Chrissy Glover, a fashion and fibers student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, came up with the final flourish: a pattern created from one of the colorful tissue-paper mosaics Eliza makes as a way to alleviate some of the urge to rip.


Last Saturday was the last day of work before the lab’s final presentation at the MIT Museum next door, and the three fellows on Team Eliza were moving about the room taking photos and making final adjustments to the design. Eliza was sitting and concentrating on an iridescent strip of chromaflex, a material that can be ironed onto fabric for embellishment, which she was going to use to create a pattern for a second shirt.

Mury was looking on, expressing her excitement about the final design and Eliza’s apparent lack of distraction. Weeks earlier, she told the administrators at Eliza’s school about the shirt, and they had predicted that without ready access to anything to rip, the impulse would likely go away. “It’s so hard to treat [kids with autism] because they can become obsessed with the threads or the picking and they get so much pleasure out of it and that’s what becomes a reinforcer,” she says. “They can learn, but they have to be free from the distractions.”

Universal Design, Meet Fashion Design

Eliza’s shirt is perfect for Eliza–right down to the custom-made pattern–but it also meets the needs of other autistic kids with similar sensory processing disorders. Glover, the team’s designer, even sees it working as performance wear for athletes. “There’s no side seams so you don’t have that point of abrasion, and with the gussets you have a range of motion,” she says. “So it’s not limited just to people with autism.”


The concept of “universal design,” which posits that designing for the underserved leads to better products for everyone, is a core tenet of Open Style lab’s curriculum. Grace Jun, the education director for the lab, says that for every product the fellows develop, they’re encouraged to think not only about how it meets the needs of people with a certain disability, but also the potential for it to be adapted to mass market.

Last year, for example, one team developed the Rayn Jacket for their client Ryan DeRoche, who uses a wheelchair after a bike accident left him with a paralyzing spinal cord injury. The weatherproof jacket includes a pouch that doubles as a lap cover–just as useful to bikers in the rain as it is to wheelchair users. The jacket was picked up by the San Francisco-based Betabrand, and is now sold through its online store.

The idea of universal design, also often called inclusive design, isn’t a new one, but it’s been gaining more and more traction in recent years–particularly in fields like product design, technology, and architecture. Architects have engaged with inclusive design when looking toward the aging population for ideas in accessible urban design, for example. Product designers have created kitchen products explicitly for people with arthritis, only to see them become a big hit for the general consumer. Even Microsoft has pushed to apply this line of thinking to improve user experience across all of its products.


A big driver for inclusive design is that people are living longer, and with a growing older population comes an increase in the disabilities that often accompany age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every five adults in the U.S. has a disability. So it stands to reason that the market would start to shift to meet that need.

Yet fashion, a notoriously insider-centric industry, has been slower to engage with inclusive design. Traditionally, fashion is about manufacturing desire–selling the latest style, or a look that fits in with your sense of identity–and it operates on a schedule that deems last season’s styles out of fashion at a fairly rapid rate. In that sense, thinking about fashion as a tool to meet a certain need would require slowing down and incorporating elements that might be difficult to design or haven’t proven to be profitable.

As the New York Times points out, manufacturing is also behind, with some factories taking issue with nonstandard pattern cutting and materials. “In fashion, the way things are produced and sold is really part of a business model,” says Jun. “So if a company has couture and ready wear, and you already sell billions around couture, why make ready wear change?”


Opening Up To Outsiders

Jun thinks collaborations with people in disciplines outside of the fashion industry can help change that attitude. She comes from a graphic design and UX background, having worked for Samsung for five years before attending a graduate program in fashion and technology at Parsons School of Design in New York. She came on to Open Style Lab in 2014, a year after it was founded, to refine the curriculum set in place by founders Grace Teo and Alice Tin, both scholars in medicine, and Lea Yoon, a doctor of law with a background in public service. Now in its third year, the lab has evolved to become essentially an incubator for developing fashion pieces that might one day make it to market.

But Jun also sees the lab as a sort of microcosm for the fashion industry–or at least an example in miniature of how fashion can start to accommodate the aging population, people with disabilities, and people of all different sizes. If the process of bringing together designers, engineers, health professionals, and clients is resulting in innovative fashion solutions for Open Style Lab, how can it be scaled up to work for the industry at large?

One way is by looking at the different people involved in the design at Open Style Lab. In addition to encouraging collaboration across various fields of study, one of the most interesting aspects of the lab is how involved the clients are in the design process. At the start of the program, fellows are introduced to the clients–folks of varying ages, lifestyles, and disabilities from the Boston area–and get to put in a request for who they’d like to work with. Jun and the founders consider their choices, then divide the fellows into groups of three or four so that each discipline is represented in each of the teams.


Unlike a lot of fashion design, which typically starts with an aesthetic concept, the teams begin developing their designs by considering the clients’ needs. And as the teams develop the piece, they consult with their client at least bi-weekly (the lab meets every Saturday) either by going to their houses or having them into the design center.

Clients try on the pieces, consult on what is working and what isn’t, and in some cases, even offers design advice. One client, a Boston-based broadcasting consultant named Michael, even offered a sketch of the style of jacket he wanted. A wheelchair user because of cerebral palsy, Michael didn’t want to compromise his high-end fashion sense for function. His team took his sketch and developed a weather-protected jacket with a detachable liner that can be worn all seasons, is resistant to abrasion from his wheelchair, and has easily accessible pockets.

In another case, Justin, a 15-year-old with scoliosis who uses a wheelchair, needed a jacket that fit him correctly. Because of the arch in his back, the jacket needed to be short in the front and longer in the back, as well as easy for him to get in and out of with the help of a caretaker. Moreover, the area around his stomach heats up easily, so the team designed a breathable jacket with a pouch around the stomach that can be opened up to keep cooler. His team came up with the design features after visiting Justin at his house and witnessing the different DIY adjustments he made to clothing and his home to make things easier for himself.


Can It Scale?

These designs are highly specified for the individual client. They are designed especially for making their lives easier and catering to their personal style. As required by the program’s curriculum, there are elements to each of the designs that could be adapted to a wider audience, both for people with similar mobility issues or for the general public.

But the fact that each of the clients had such unique needs highlights another problem for designing adaptive wear on a mass scale: No two disabilities are exactly the same.

Jun acknowledged that challenge in designing for disabilities, but she says that the more research that is done the easier it is to spot common problems that can be solved in the same way. “There are some common denominators that you can find, overlapping physical disabilities or neurological disabilities,” she says, like MS and muscular dystrophy, that you can group together into demographics that will help for mass production.


The main thing that Jun says needs to happen, besides more research? For more designers to become interested in this problem. Big fashion brands need to be able to consult with designers who have experience in adaptive wear. A great example of that kind of collaboration emerged back in February, when designer Mindy Scheier helped fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger come out with a line of adaptive wear. Scheier, who designed and styled clothing for Saks Fifth Avenue before being inspired by her son with muscular dystrophy to found the nonprofit Runway of Dreams, used her expertise to work with existing brands that already have the marketing power, distribution networks, and supply chains.

Companies also need to be able to turn to research and case studies before agreeing to change their manufacturing methods or include adaptive garments in a ready-to-wear line. “If you’re a big conglomerate you would ask a third party–people who do research on cell phone users, for instance,” says Jun. “But where are you going to go ask for people who make adaptive wear, rather than really niche fashion designers?”

That’s where a group like the Open Style Lab comes in–to provide that base-level research and training for designers interested in adaptive wear. Jun is working to create an iteration of the summer program for a regular semester-long course at Parsons. She recently received a call from someone at the White House about possibly making the course adaptable to universities across the country.


Jun says it’s possible to adapt the course, but the biggest concern is making sure you have the right mix of people and partnerships. A program like this needs sponsorship from companies like Polartec, which donated durable fabrics to the lab, and partnerships with people within the community who can connect students with clients and manufacturers willing to work with them. Jun also stresses that designers need to be working with people in health care, such as the occupational therapists who participate in Open Style Lab.

“It’s going to go into the health sector regardless, so the more informed you are about that the better your designs are going to be,” she says. “Having a curriculum that fosters that and a holistic approach will help designers design whatever it is–garment, accessories, product–conscientiously.”

[Photos: courtesy Open Style Lab and the author]

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About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.