By Emma Hanson, English Literature MA
The Croft Magazine // Exclusive interview with the University of Bristol students who are 'making fashion accessible and access fashionable'.
As is the case with most people in lockdown, I don’t usually give much thought to my outfits. Cameras stay off for seminars and lectures, so I can stay in my loungewear indefinitely. But today was different, as I am interviewing Hanna Jones and Riley Nicholas about their fashion project, Project Co, so all things fashion is at the forefront of my mind. Project Co is a project addressing the issue of disability access in the fashion industry – their mission is to make fashion accessible and access fashionable.
After establishing their favourite items of clothing – Hanna’s being her corduroy boiler suit and Riley’s ‘head to toe black and a lot of jewellery’ – I ask them where the idea for Project Co came from.
With a passion for the project that was almost tangible through the computer screen, Hanna stated that the idea for Project Co came from when she was younger. A hip tumour and IBS meant she was in a lot of pain during the day: ‘I sewed hand warmers into my trousers to help with the pain. That’s where the idea came from – why doesn’t adaptive clothing like this exist when you think about how many people are in pain day-to-day, whether it is period pain or chronic pain?’. Hanna and Riley both study Innovation at the University of Bristol, and Project Co is their final project. Riley commented on their enthusiasm and drive behind the project: ‘the projects we’ve done before have been good work, but never really went past the classroom. We wanted to move past that, make some impact and do something real’.
Riley spoke about his initial concern that he didn’t want to speak for people with disabilities: ‘how do we do this in a way that isn’t just ethical and respectful but also authentic?’. Co-design was the answer which means that Hanna and Riley involve participants at every stage of the research and design process. ‘As a designer, your personal bias can twist a product. You wouldn’t choose to put your ableist experience of the world into your product, but that’s what we subconsciously do. So, we decided we’re not going to do that. The participants are involved every step of the way, so we ensure we are not speaking for them’.
Part of the co-design process is asking participants to complete a clothing diary, where they document their thoughts and feelings about their clothes on a day-to-day basis. Hanna elaborated that ‘in an interview it is hard to think about the everyday experience of living with a disability. [The clothing diary] is our way of saying “take us with you every day and understand your thoughts as they appear”’. One of Riley’s favourite things about the clothing diary is that it is open ended, ‘the best person to record and relay the experience is the person experiencing it’. Participants can record their thoughts however they choose, be it vlogging, texting, painting, in an aim to make this stage as accessible as possible.
The more Hanna and Riley discuss Project Co, the clearer their enthusiasm and passion becomes, alongside the evident need for a project like this within the fashion industry. There are more clothing brands for dogs than for people with disabilities, despite the fact that one in five people live with a disability. Riley comments, ‘I can’t accept that the fashion industry has simply overlooked this problem; they are consciously failing to solve it’.
One of Hanna and Riley’s inspirations and partner organisations is Able Model Management which aims to make fashion accessible to all by giving opportunities to those who have been misrepresented by society and the fashion industry. James, the cofounder of Able Model Management, is a huge source of inspiration for Project Co. He represents people with disabilities within the industry, but the adaptive clothing industry is very small: ‘people don’t place commercial value on it, so there are a lot of small companies with limited funding’. For consumers this means limited, and expensive, choices. This is where Hanna and Riley hope Project Co can make a lasting impact within the fashion industry. They aim to conceptualise and document their co-design process, learn from it and educate others. ‘We want to show that it is possible to co-design adaptive clothing with such little funding, so that companies with larger funds and resources are more encouraged to take it on’.
There is an explicit need for Project Co in the fashion industry, and their research into the co-design process can be invaluable to increasing accessibility in other industries as well. I am feeling inspired and excited, so I ask what advice they have for someone who wants to undertake a similar project. ‘We’ve had so much affirming engagement, so I think if anyone is wondering if there is scope for this, the answer is absolutely yes. People are excited to see this change’.
How about from a consumer level? Can my next purchase contribute to the positive change which Project Co is working towards? ‘There isn’t much out there [in terms of adaptive clothing for disabilities], but movements in body positivity, size and race are already happening. You will always benefit a small independent business by buying one thing from them, rather than buying from a huge corporation. Your spending power is power, and it is so important to support brands that care’.
By the end of the call I’m convinced and I’m sharing the excitement and passion which Hanna and Riley foster for Project Co. There is such a need for accessible clothing in the fashion industry, and the potential impact and influence of the co-design process is hugely encouraging. It really is time to make fashion accessible and accessibility fashionable.
Featured image: Epigram/Morgan Collins