The MIT Open Style Lab Is Changing the Face of Fashion

It designs adaptive clothing for people with disabilities.

MIT Open Style Lab

Team Eliza/Photo provided

For Jim Wice, fancy events presented a major dilemma. Not because socializing made him nervous—quite the opposite; he was eager to attend dinner parties and meetings with his peers—but because he would sweat. A lot. His body just couldn’t regulate its own temperature.

“He would sweat right through his suits because of a spinal cord injury that impaired his senses,” explains Grace Jun, executive director and wearables researcher at the MIT Open Style Lab. “He needed something more ventilated to stay comfortable.”

Luckily, Open Style Lab, a 10-week program for designers, engineers, and occupational therapists, was on the case. The program tasks small teams with developing adaptive clothing for consumers with disabilities, promoting the idea of universal and inclusive design and creating a product that tackles its client’s specific needs.

Open Style Lab has been in operation since 2014, but this year has been a big one for the group. The teams showed at an inclusive fashion show at the White House in September, then at the Museum of Science this month. Jun is also offering the program at the Parsons School of Design, in New York City, for the first time this fall.

In Cambridge this past summer, the teams continued the work Open Style Lab has done for the past two years. Wice’s team came up with SUITable, a sport coat that adjusts for changes in temperature. The suit is made from stretchy, absorbent material, and features front flaps that easily open and close for added ventilation. There are also hidden pockets for convenience and accessibility.

This summer’s winning team developed a “tough” shirt for an 11-year old girl, Eliza, who has autism spectrum disorder and OCD. Eliza fixates on seams, and couldn’t help ripping through all of her clothing. After testing different stitchings and fabrics, her team unveiled a line of seamless, fray-less, fitted shirts that are extremely tear-resistant.

While the designs that come out of Open Style Lab are novel, they have the potential to be far more than prototypes. “More people suffer from these problems than you would ever realize looking at the market,” Jun says.

She has a point. About 20 percent of U.S. residents have some kind of disability, according to the CDC. Even still, more than 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, clothing remains a largely ignored frontier of equality, with few options for people who don’t fit the majority mold.

“Honestly, it’s just supply and demand,” Jun says, referring to the economies of scale fast fashion brands use to turn a profit.

Hopefully, though, that won’t always be the case. Jun cites fashion’s “trickle-down” effect: Most people don’t wear the high-fashion clothing they see on the runway, but eventually, those styles filter down to stores such as Forever21 and H&M. The same could eventually be true of inclusive design.

“Adaptable wear doesn’t just have to serve those with disabilities,” Jun says. “Some of these designs can lead to better products for everyone.” SUITable, for example, looks like a normal sport coat—it just happens to have greater ventilation. Jun also thinks Open Style Lab’s VersaCoat, a waterproof jacket adapted for those using a wheelchair, could be useful for anyone shielding electronics from a rainstorm, for example.

With the expansion of the program, Jun’s vision may not be so far off. And next summer, Jun wants to cast an even wider net. She’s looking for applicants who actually have a disability themselves, adding a new perspective to the program. “We encourage fellows with different abilities to work with a client, regardless,” she says.

—By Dana Guth