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Unexpected Bodies: Inside the DisArt Fashion Show

Posted May 11, 2015 in StudentPublicFashion Studies

For the first time ever, this year’s New York City Fashion Week featured a number of disabled models, and the flood of ensuing press made it clear that clothing is far from a footnote in conversations surrounding contemporary perceptions of disability.

But while the focus in New York remained largely on the glitz and glamour of high fashion, a fashion show held here in Grand Rapids on April 17 as a part of the inaugural DisArt Festival made some waves of its own by proving that beauty and functionality don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

DisArt Fashion ShowThe house was packed for the inagural DisArt Fashion Show

Organized by DisArt Fashion Lead and Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) alum Robert Andy Coombs (’13, Photography) and assisted by KCAD Fashion Studies Program Chair Lori Faulkner, the show was powered by a collaboration between KCAD’s Pamella Roland DeVos School of Fashion, Spectrum Health Innovations, the Open Style Lab at MIT, and Fashion Has Heart.

Robert Andy CoombsDisArt Fashion Lead and Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) alum Robert Andy Coombs (’13, Photography)

In the morning, a discussion panel gathered members from each participating organization with festivalgoers to discuss the role of fashion in helping to change existing perceptions of disability as well as the fashion designs they’d each contributed. Later that night, a packed house of nearly 300 guests looked on as disabled models proudly showcased this very special convergence of talent, design, and humanity.

“We’re putting unexpected bodies in the context of fashion,” said DisArt Festival Director Chris Smit. “That’s bold, and everyone involved with this event had to be brave and forward thinking in order to make it happen.”

models from the DisArt Fashion ShowA group of models from the DisArt Fashion Show

Faulkner coordinated a relationship with Spectrum Health Innovations that gave Fashion Studies students in the Garments for Action and Function class the opportunity to create special clothing for children with neuro-muscular diseases that require they have constant compression on certain parts of their bodies. Existing compression garments are expensive, not always covered by insurance, can be difficult to use, and are aesthetically unappealing to the children who need them – meaning they often don’t deliver on their intended benefits. Working directly with Spectrum patients and employees, the students were able to develop fun, colorful garments that are fully functional and inexpensive to manufacture.

BioFit compression garmentOne of the compression garments featured in the show, designed by KCAD Fashion Studies students for Spectrum Health Innovations

“I believe that fashion is communication – it’s a way for someone to express their identity, and I think what DisArt is celebrating is the challenges that some have to overcome, but also our similarities,” said Liz Bartlett, an adjunct professor in the Fashion Studies program who taught the Garments for Action and Function class. “Everyone has something they want to express with their garments.”

DisArt modelA young Spectrum Health patient models the stylish and functional compression garments designed for her by a KCAD Fashion Studies student

Michael Miller, director of intellectual asset management at Specturm Health Innovations, added “This has been a fantastic relationship. I think the challenge for business is to figure out how to get out of our own way, and create a model where we can make this stuff available.”

Grand Rapids-based non-profit Fashion Has Heart showcased a number of original clothing and footwear designs that were created to support American veterans by helping them tell their stories through fashion. Veterans are paired with area designers to create one-of-a-kind designs that reflect the courage, sacrifice, honor, and nobility of these heroes, and the garments are then sold to raise both awareness of and money for veterans who are in need of assistance.

Fashion Has Heart modelA model shows off original t-shirt and footwear designs from Fashion Has Heart

“Fashion is communication of oneself,” said Fashion Has Heart Executive Director Tyler Way. “Not only does it allow you to project what you want to express about yourself; it can also provide an outlet for conversation around issues that can be brought to people’s attention.”

Open Style Lab – an MIT-sponsored organization that works across different disciplines to make style accessible to people of all abilities - showcased a number of innovative clothing designs that reflect the organization’s universal approach to inclusivity in fashion.

The RAYN jacket, for instance, is a sporty, waterproof jacket designed primarily for wheelchair users to protect their legs from the elements and to be easy to take on and off. However, the design is equally effective for able-bodies users who are looking for extra protection from bad weather when cycling, kayaking, or engaging in other outdoor activities.

Open Style Lab's Rayn JacketA model sports the RAYN jacket from Open Style Lab

“Universal design is one way in which we can use fashion to accommodate all bodies in a very sustainable manner,” said Open Style Lab Executive Director Grace Teo. “Beauty is social capital, and the control you can have over your appearance is really important.”

Click here for more photos of the DisArt fashion show!