Inclusive Fashion: Parsons X Special Olympics

Parson’s fashion student Abby Gaskin shares how the collaboration with the Special Olympics shaped her ideas of fashion + design.

What is the future of fashion? Here at No Kill Magazine we know collection after collection of synthetic garments worn on skinny white girls traipsing down a runway is the old model. It may not be gone, but it’s effectively over as far as we’re concerned. So what will fill this void? New materials? New models of circularity? More inclusive work? There is a lot of exciting work going on and we’re going to share it with you here. Starting with a look at Parsons’ recent collaboration with Special Olympics through the eyes of student designer Abby Gaskin.

Abby looks on as a classmate measures Special Olympics Skater/Athlete Mickey

Abby looks on as a classmate measures Special Olympics Skater/Athlete Mickey

Parsons fashion is known for bringing forth some of the most successful designers in the business –think Marc Jacobs, Tracy Reese and Anna Sui– so you might think they would be the last to change. Instead they continue to push past expectations by asking themselves questions like “What happens when we start our design process with the people and communities we care most about? And “What happens when we when we partner with people outside of the typical fashion realm?”

Asking these questions led to this collaboration between the Special Olympics and Parsons BFA Fashion Design program. Special Olympics is an organization created to highlight athletes with intellectual and physical disabilities.

Created as a class last spring, student designers worked together with Special Olympics athletes, specifically ice skaters, to design clothes for the athletes. This not only includes uniforms for the Special Olympics itself, but practice attire and other performance wear as well. We had a chance to see this through the work of senior Parsons designer Abby Gaskin, who was paired with skater Mickey Chan to create Olympic wear that would give him confidence and would perform well.

Initial Research

Abby and her classmates did background research about ice skating, mainly some of the rules and regulations of the Special Olympics skating regarding athletic wear. For example, certain fabrics or certain lengths or fits of garments are not allowed. Other than that, Abby approached the project openly: without any sketches or mood boards.

 “I was specifically interested in working with uniform pieces as opposed to ice skating competition pieces, so in terms of initial inspiration I didn’t look as much to figure skating competition-wear as I did towards outerwear and practice gear. Whether that was snow pants or jackets or general outerwear, this was the focus because it was similar to what Mickey was wearing already.”

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As part of her commitment to sustainability Abby researched natural dyes

As part of her commitment to sustainability Abby researched natural dyes

Designing for sustainability in the framework of performance wear.

Athletic wear is often created from synthetics and plastic based materials which Abby wanted to avoid.

“Because Mickey will just be in the cold while he’s on the ice and won’t actually be in any water, he only needs water resistant uniform pieces rather than fully waterproof. I was looking a lot at cotton-based and wool-based materials and played around with waxing cotton with soy-based waxes. The collection I made for Mickey in the end was all made from a recycled cotton twill drop cloth, and I then used indigo dye to make all of the blue hues and chlorophyllin (which is basically condensed chlorophyll) to make the greens, and all of the whites were from that cotton cloth. You can get amazing results with natural dye!”

 With other parts of the uniform pieces such as fasteners, Abby mentioned that she had to do some creative thinking for the designs to remain sustainable while keeping with what Mickey needed.

 “I was looking at Velcro, because that was a fastener that Mickey enjoyed when we were testing out different openings and fastenings. However, Velcro is made of plastic and if I was putting so much effort into reducing the use of plastic, using it didn’t make sense. I was playing around with developing my own type of Velcro fastener, and it was ‘Velcro’ in the sense that the strap would go through a loop and would come around and tap a sort of button-shaped snap. It was basically a belt with snaps rather than the ripping of an actual Velcro fastener, but it still functioned in the same way.”

Fashion vs Functionality: why can’t this either/or be both/and?

Abby’s sketches looking at technical aspects

Abby’s sketches looking at technical aspects

“There often seems to be this misconception that these are two separate concepts, and that somehow they are completely different, but I like to challenge this idea and ask ‘Why can’t functionality be fashionable? Why can’t we design things for function, and have that be fashionable?’ Any sort of decision you make functionality-wise is, in a sense, the fashion choice as well. “

On working with a client

“Communication is very important in these collaborative relationships, because it’s not like I’m doing all of the designing for Mickey. It’s definitely a two-way street. I know that a lot of these athletes with different abilities have a range of communication styles that they feel comfortable using, so it took a little bit longer to truly understand what Mickey liked within certain designs or what he didn’t like.

A lot of it was nonverbal communication, and it wasn’t as simple as just asking Mickey if he liked a certain design or what direction he may want to take with a uniform piece. It was definitely different, but I think we just tried to take a thoughtful approach that could be applied to any situation involving working with athletes, regardless of ability. You had to be so focused when working with athletes from the Special Olympics and be very in tune with what they liked, and this mindset can be applied to working with other athletes of other abilities.”

Little specific touches can make a garment unique for these athletes. Abby went on to say, “There are also certain aspects of design that people with these intellectual disabilities, for example, may like a lot as opposed to people without. For example, certain athletes really liked the idea of compression, because it felt very comforting. However, Mickey did not like tight things and didn’t want his clothes to be tight. So, these certain aspects added a layer of comfort mentally that could be highlighted in these uniforms.”

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3 ways this collaboration changed Abby’s approach to her work

  1. It is less “self-centered”
    Before “I focused a lot on what I liked and what I wanted to see and what I thought was interesting. Now I think more beyond myself. ‘Oh, I don’t like this silhouette, but what would the other person involved think about it?’ It took me out of my own head in a sense.”

  2. It has changed her understanding of collaboration
    I really learned the importance of finding a compromise. With this experience, Mickey would often voice his opinion about aspects he liked that wouldn’t be my first choice, and I’m sure there were things I would say too that he was skeptical about. Even with this, we were able to find a middle ground.

  3. She approaches her work with a human-centered design focus
    “This concept reminds you that you’re designing for real people. So much of the time, we design with a sort of ‘general person’ or ‘general population’ in mind, when it makes so much more sense to design in a more specific way. So many more people will actually relate to one of these ‘specific’ pieces, rather than something designed more broadly.”

    –Grace Potter