With 'healthwear', designers are turning fashion into a force for good

NEW YORK • Six years ago, Mrs Maura Horton, a housewife in Raleigh, North Carolina, received a call from her husband, Don, the assistant football coach at North Carolina State. He was on the road for a game and having so much trouble buttoning his shirt, he had to ask a player for help.

Mr Horton had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease four years before and symptoms were starting to worsen. So Mrs Horton did what anyone would do these days when faced with such a problem: She searched Google for "easy-to-close shirt". And found ... not much.

"And then I looked at my iPad cover and saw it had these really small magnets and thought, 'Well, what about that?'" she says now - a patent, a company and 22 shirt styles later.

Mrs Horton (who once designed children's wear but stopped to start her family) and her company, MagnaReady, are part of a new sub-sector in fashion: what Mr Chaitenya Razdan, founder and chief executive of Care and Wear, has christened "healthwear". The sector takes the tools and techniques (and trends) of fashion and applies them to the challenges created by illness and disability.

And healthwear is simply one part of a larger movement, in which classically trained designers are rethinking the basic premise, and promise, of fashion. Call it solution-based design.

Though fashion is often dismissed as frivolous and selfindulgent, this growing niche suggests that rather than being part of the problem - and a symbol of the multiple divisions in society (political, personal, economic) - it can come up with some of the answers.

In May, for example, Ms Angela Luna was named a designer of the year at Parsons School of Design at the New School for a graduate collection of convertible garments that used outerwear to address specific issues of the refugee crisis: shelter, flotation, visibility. So there was a hip utility coat that could become a tent and a padded jacket that became a sleeping bag. One anorak had a built-in flotation device; another, a baby carrier.

She followed Ms Lucy Jones, who won designer of the year in 2015 for a collection that focused on minimal, elegant clothes for wheelchair users.

"It started when a professor of mine challenged us to do something that would change the world," she said. She began talking to a 14-year-old cousin who has hemiplegia, in which one side of his body is significantly weaker than the other. He told her he was being teased at school for not being able to do up his pants by himself.

She then met United Cerebral Palsy of New York City and started conducting focus groups. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing," she said. "Something everyone does - get dressed and undressed - should not be a challenge."

Though advances in medical technology and legislation have created situations in which people with long-term conditions are increasingly able to be part of the work force and quotidian life, the implications - they need clothes that allow them to do so while also accommodating their physical reality - have taken a while to sink in.

Manufacturing has similarly not caught up with reality and Ms Jones and Ms Luna cite issues with nonstandard pattern-cutting and materials (people in wheelchairs, for example, need tops with very truncated bodies but long arms) as roadblocks to wider production.

When Ms Luna first became immersed in the refugee crisis, she considered transferring from Parsons to a school with a more traditional international relations programme as she could not imagine the relevance of what she was learning. She did not have a model to follow.

And when she realised that her skills may have a practical application, she had to overcome the stigma of refugee chic, the assumption that she was being "inspired" by the crisis to make expensive clothes. After all, a Hungarian photographer did a widely criticised fashion shoot last year featuring a model in runway attire posing by a barbed-wire fence.

But this is not about exploiting an issue or bringing it to broader attention. It is about seeing fashion as a tool to ameliorate it and creating a system to help. "Fashion has created a lot of problems, but there is an opportunity for it to be a force for good," Ms Luna said. "We just have to realise it."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2016, with the headline 'With 'healthwear', designers are turning fashion into a force for good'. Print Edition | Subscribe