Open Style Lab: Making Apparel Accessible to All
After competitive cyclist Ryan DeRoche suffered a spinal-cord injury and lost mobility in his arms and legs, he wanted to remain active, but his limited mobility made taking a jacket on and off difficult. And because his nerves are in the process of regenerating, he found stimuli such as raindrops extremely painful.
“He couldn’t find a rain jacket that would protect his lap,” said Alice Tin, co-founder and director of the Open Style Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. DeRoche worked with a team of designers, engineers and physical therapists at Open Style Lab to develop the Rayn Jacket, a rain jacket with a deployable waterproof flap in the front that is attached with magnets. When closed, the flap looks like a hoodie pouch. When open, it covers the wearer’s lap.
The Open Style Lab team soon realized the Rayn Jacket could be useful in other applications as well, such as bike riding, commuting, attending sporting events and camping.
“If you think about it, anyone who’s outside in a sitting position, you have a lot of surface area on your lap that’s not protected,” Tin said.
An Open Style Lab team member got in touch with San Francisco–based Betabrand, the apparel and accessories maker that invites its customers and fans to vote on and help fund pitched designs.
“We pitched and they really liked the concept and the product that we had to offer,” Tin said.
The Rayn Jacket is currently in the voting stage in Betabrand’s think tank. If it garners enough votes, the jacket will move to the crowd-funding stage on its way to production.
The Rayn Jacket was one of eight projects developed last year at Open Style Lab’s OSL Summer Program, a 10-week workshop at MIT. The program pairs teams of designers, engineers, and occupational and physical therapists with eight clients who need help with specific apparel-related issues that present an “independent dressing challenge.”
Grace Teo, the organization’s executive director and co-founder, came up with the idea for Open Style Lab when she was working in a Boston hospital while studying for her Ph.D. She met two women with multiple sclerosis who had lost motor skills in their fingers. The women explained to Teo that they had difficulty using things such as buttons and zippers. Teo, who earned her Ph.D in health sciences and technology from MIT, teamed up with Tin, who has a master’s degree in public health and is currently studying medicine at Brown University, to launch Open Style Lab in 2014. The two wanted to create a network of designers, engineers, clinicians and clients to problem-solve apparel issues for people with a range of disabilities and to “help all people to find clothing suitable for their conditions, whatever that may be.”
With a mission “to make style accessible to people of all abilities,” the interdisciplinary research and development project seeks to find ways of “creating innovative wearable solutions for people with disabilities.”
The organization also creates education programs to “equip the community with the skills to create clothing that is accessible for people with disabilities.”
In addition to the Rayn Jacket, Open Style Lab is currently working on another project that was developed through the OSL Summer Program. Neoclosure is a “magnetically infused seam” featuring “cylindrical magnets that are sewn into seams so that they can open and close very smoothly and without having to apply a lot of force,” Tin said. The Open Style Lab team got a provisional patent for technology, which was developed for a professor at Tufts University with Guillain-Barre syndrome. The wheelchair-bound educator needed a pair of pants that “would allow him to use the bathroom in a seated position but would still be strong enough to hold his pants together,” Tin said.
The Open Style Lab team found a secondary use for Neoclosure when one of its own team members had a health issue that required her to have a feeding tube.
“It was difficult for her to find dresses that would accommodate her feeding tube,” Tin said. “We applied Neoclosure to make a very subtle and easily concealed seam that would allow the tube to pass through the dress instead of having tubes that would kink up everywhere and look awkward.”
Initially, the Open Style Lab team found its clients by word-of-mouth from the occupational therapists who serve as mentors for the program as well as from a social worker who runs a support group for amputees. Since the launch of the program, other clients have approached the Open Style Lab team with their own ideas for new products. One of those was a 3-year-old girl named Annabelle, who wears a leg brace that made it difficult to find shoes that fit over the brace.
“Her mother was very smart in sending us an adorable picture of her in her pitch. We couldn’t resist taking on this project,” Tin said. “As a little girl, she really liked sparkles, anything Hello Kitty. It was impossible to find anything that was cute but would accommodate her physical needs.”
The Open Style Lab team considered making a special shoe but ultimately decided all that was needed was a special Velcro strip that adds some width to the shoe to accommodate the brace.
The OSL Summer Program will return for its second season on June 12 with a schedule that will include mentorship by faculty advisers from MIT, Boston University, Tufts, Parsons The New School for Design and Massachusetts College of Art and Design as well as industry speakers discussing everything from fashion and product design to prosthetic engineering and assistive wearable design.
The summer program will be held in the MIT International Design Center, a shared workspace stocked with equipment such as laser cutters, 3-D printers and soldering stations.
When Open Style Lab was getting ready to take the Rayn Jacket beyond the concept stage, Tin said, the team began looking into patternmaking technology.
“We needed a system that would allow us to do 3-D prototyping of our designs,” Tin said.
Through the team’s designer, Open Style Lab connected with Los Angeles–based Tukatech. After an initial discussion of what Tin and her colleagues needed and the mission behind Open Style Lab, Tukatech donated the software to the program.
“They made a very generous donation of TukaCAD so we could use it to develop the Rayn Jacket and other projects we may have in the future,” Tin said.
Tukatech Chief Executive Officer Ram Sareen called Open Style Lab’s mission a “noble initiative.”
“TukaCAD enables them to improve their product development, allowing them to quickly create beautiful and functional clothing, ultimately helping more people,” he said.
For now, TukaCAD is Open Style Lab’s only tech acquisition. “I can imagine as our organization grows and our needs change, we would consider other technology as well,” Tin said. “We’re definitely all about assistive technology and how to apply existing technologies to do the work that we’re doing—because we believe in not reinventing the wheel and broadening the application for existing products.”
In addition to the OSL Summer Program, Open Style Lab considers other activities that help the team achieve their mission. Teo was recently in Slovenia working on a similar assistive clothing project. Members of the team have also spoken at conferences such as Hacking Arts at MIT, the Artists and Scientists as Partners symposium at Brown and the recent DisArt Festival in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“We’re very interested in any opportunities that are interdisciplinary and [provide an opportunity for] learning from other organizations that are doing similar work,” Tin said. “We often look to our mission statement and evaluate whether [an opportunity] would drive the mission forward. If there is a connection, we’re always very happy to pursue them.”