In this collaborative course at WashU, innovation is a team sport

by Caroline Roseman

Washington University students from across schools and disciplines worked together to develop prototype garments to meet the needs of athletes with disabilities.

Fashion Collaboration is an academic course designed to give people with different backgrounds and expertise an opportunity to work together to solve a problem related to apparel. The course was led by faculty from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, the School of Engineering & Applied Sciences and the School of Medicine’s Program in Occupational Therapy.

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Program participant Chelsea Wallaert, a graduate student in occupational therapy (OT), had often talked with her sister (an apparel major at another institution) about how individuals with disabilities are left out of fashion design. So, when Wallert learned of the Fashion Collaboration course at Sam Fox, she jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it.

Wallaert and the other OT students in the program were actively involved in the development process, contributing knowledge from their previous experiences working with people with disabilities. They shared with their classmates the issues people with disabilities have in taking clothes on and off. They also shared how spinal cord injuries can impact people’s ability to sweat as a form of controlling body heat.

Wallaert and her fellow students researched, designed, and constructed the prototype garments for the elite athletes on the St. Louis Spartans wheelchair rugby team. By replacing traditional buttons or zippers with magnetic closures and using extra-wide pant legs, the students made it easier for the athletes to change into and out of the garments. To regulate body temperature, the students utilized mesh fabrics to aid in ventilation and Nike donated AeroReact fabric, which is designed to adapt to changes in athletes’ body temperatures to maximize breathability. These are just two of several challenges the students were tasked with addressing in their prototype.

“This experience is something I don’t think will ever leave me. It showed me there is so much more OTs can do beyond working in traditional medical settings to develop better solutions for people with disabilities,” said Wallaert.

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Lola Idowu, a senior in the Olin Business School, was involved in virtually every step of the development of the garments from brainstorming to sewing. Idowu helped build a survey of the athletes to determine what features were important to them. After interviewing four competitive athletes and observing them in action to better understand their needs, the team used this research and client input to develop the prototype garment.

Fashion Collaboration allowed Idowu to combine her interests in business, design, and engineering while collaborating with other students to make a difference in the lives of fellow community members.

“The opportunity to take courses with individuals from different majors, and take courses outside of my school…was definitely a large portion of my decision to attend WashU,” said Idowu.

Wallaert says the experience helped her realize the importance of considering differing perspectives. This became particularly clear during the prototype brainstorming, when engineering students and faculty “brought the team back to reality” by challenging how certain ideas would translate into actual implementation and by maintaining a realistic mindset for the group

Says Wallaert, “Participating in this program showed me that problem-solving and innovation really does take a village and that everyone brings something different to the table.”

Learn more about Fashion Collaboration in the Source.