Open Style Lab’s Fashion Toolkit Is a Hack-In-A-Box

The lab’s new Hack-Ability Kit offers DIY fashion solutions for people with disabilities.

Open Style Lab's Hack-Ability Kit
The Hack-Ability kit contains supplies like stencils, premade loops, and an adaptive needle threader. Courtesy Kilian Son

For the billion-plus people worldwide who are living with a disability, everyday tasks pose innumerable barriers—not least among them finding comfortable, practical, yet stylish clothing. At the same time that fashion designers are pivoting to confront ageist biases and address the needs of the disabled, they are also grappling with the environmental impact of wasteful throwaway clothing. Indeed, the garment industry is estimated to produce more greenhouse gases than aviation.

As disabled designer Christina Mallon recently remarked, “When I became disabled, I had to throw out 95 percent of my wardrobe.” To address these challenges, the Open Style Lab, or OSL (on whose board Mallon sits)—an MIT offshoot specializing in wearable solutions for people with disabilities—embarked on an ambitious project to design a custom toolkit that would empower the disabled to “hack” and modify their own clothing.

This past summer the OSL, along with the NYU Langone Medical Center’s Initiative for Women with Disabilities, recruited a group of disabled teenage girls to work with engineers, designers, and occupational therapists to develop the Hack-Ability Kit of easy-to-use products and instructional videos. The box includes a range of items that the disabled can use to modify their apparel, and focuses on two basic elements: pockets and loops.

Hack-Ability Kit
As part of a collaboration between Open Style Lab and NYU Langone Medical Center’s Initiative for Women with Disabilities, teens teamed up with engineers to develop a new Hack-Ability Kit. Courtesy Kilian Son

Adding or reworking these simple pieces can transform a shirt or dress into an updated garment fairly quickly and inexpensively. There are three stencils for customizing pockets of various styles, premade loops in small and large sizes, and hooks for wheelchair cushions. An adaptive needle threader and a foam grip are easier to use, particularly for those with impaired fine motor skills, which can make sewing and cutting difficult.

After getting comfortable with tools that many of the participants had never used before, the group began their foray into fashion design. One team was tasked with adding loops to skirts and dresses to help keep them in place—a major concern for women in wheelchairs or with walkers. Another team worked on creating pockets, a frequently missing item in women’s clothing and much needed for hard-to-carry items such as cell phones.

Open Style Lab
Participants in the Open Style Lab initiative at Convene. Courtesy Kilian Son

Creating the toolkit and using it to alter their favorite items of clothing proved a worthy learning experience for program participants. Activities like measuring and cutting, which require mathematical precision, reinforced the importance of STEAM skills. The girls also learned the value of teamwork in tackling physically demanding tasks, such as threading a needle. “Two is better than one,” noted one young woman. And overall, the girls came away with a newfound sense of self-confidence and empowerment. As team member Destiny Valazquez remarked, “I learned that fashion is about being more adaptive and independent.”

Available on the organization’s website, openstylelab.org, the kit is $35, an affordable price point that makes it available to as many people as possible. It is the hope of the OSL team that users will come up with even more innovative hacks to transform fashion—and improve lives with their kit. As OSL executive director Grace Jun notes, “Today’s hackers are tomorrow’s designers.”

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