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Fashion Design With an Eye Toward Aging

Students created wearable styles for the Disrupt Aging Design Challenge


When you have Parkinson’s Disease, the daily task of getting dressed can be a source of stress and frustration. You have very few stylish options, and are generally forced into wearing elastic-waist gym pants and soft, loose t-shirts. However, a recent competition for student designers aims to change that, and perhaps, bring attention to the challenges that older adults and people with disabilities face in a task that many take for granted: Choosing and dressing in stylish, wearable clothing.

Working in conjunction with Parsons School of Design at the New School in New York, AARP sponsored the “Disrupt Aging Design Challenge,” which awarded a $5,000 prize to a student designer whose collection fulfilled three criteria:

  1. Identify a critical design issue facing an aging population or user
  2. Research and develop a design that addresses the issue
  3. Produce a garment or product that solves the identified problem

Making It Work

The New York Times reported that 15 students who were part of a 12-week course run by Open Style Lab (a nonprofit whose mission is to design functional, but stylish, clothing for people with disabilities) participated in the challenge.

Students were paired with older collaborators, from an 80-year-old with Parkinson’s disease to a collective of former inmates over 50. They were looking for a range of solutions — coats that can be easily put on while in a wheelchair; outfits that allow for assistive devices and catheters and  tops with necklines that stay open enough to easily pull over one’s head.

“Disability overlaps with aging and universal design,” Grace Jun, the executive director of the program, told the Times. “We need to see it as part of our life cycle. It’s something that we need to not only see from a human rights standpoint, but also for its economic value.”

Designs included a vest with an extended wingspan for users with skeletal issues; shoes with integrated navigation for the blind; buttonless apparel for degenerative disease sufferers and more.

The winning collection by Parsons senior Camila Chiriboga was a means of tagging garments so they would be easier to identify and understand for anyone who is visually impaired or blind.

“With this collection, I set out to explore the ways in which fashion could expand beyond its visual language to include the senses of touch, smell, sound,” Chiriboga said in an AARP press release. “What better way to do it than to work with a community, mostly comprised of people over 50 who have slowly lost their sight due to age or age-related diseases, that have been excluded from the visual system of fashion until this point?”

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By Shayla Stern
Shayla leads the editorial team and content strategy as the Director of Editorial and Content for Next Avenue at Twin Cities PBS. She has spent a career in digital media journalism and digital strategy at organizations including washingtonpost.comEdmunds.comCars.com and Fast Horse, and worked as a consultant for several years. She also was a media professor at the University of Minnesota and DePaul University and  has a Ph.D. in Mass Communication. She can be reached at [email protected].@shayla_stern

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