Is Boston Inadvertently Becoming an Inclusive Design Hub?

Posted on January 14, 2015

As a disability advocate and New Yorker, it has become frustratingly obvious that something strange and wonderful is taking place in Boston. You probably haven’t noticed yet, but once I point it out, you might start seeing it everywhere. I believe I’m in a unique position to see this trend, as I write about the intersection of disability and fashion. Please don’t let these two interests of mine stop you from reading further, because this post is not just about disability and fashion. It’s about that feeling you get when you happen across a product that was made just for you. For your very specific need. And constructed beautifully.

Also, you should know that I am a die hard Yankees fan and Bill Belichick frightens me.

Since I’m an outsider, I thought my friend Joe Egan (an MA to NYC transplant who married a Yankees fan) might have some insights. I asked him why, when I live in the center of the fashion universe, I have to turn to Boston to find innovative and inclusive products.

Joe feels that “Massachusetts is the most progressive state in the Union. First in marriage equality, first in universal healthcare, historically and consistently among the best public school systems. So why not be first in assistive fashion?”

And I think he might be onto something.

Jeff Coburn of Boston’s School for Global Inclusion and Social Development was kind enough to put some thought into my question. SGISD was listed as one of The Boston Globe’s 12 new ideas that are making Boston more inclusive.

Developed from UMass Boston’s Institute for Community Inclusion, SGISD’s mission is to create global inclusion for ALL people who are excluded for whatever reason, be it disability, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and others. Here’s what Jeff had to say:

“Boston has two things in spades: schools and hospitals (Harvard, MIT, UMass Boston, and MGH, Beth Israel, Children’s Hospital). But what is more important is what schools and hospitals bring to an area. Schools and hospitals bring a plethora of smart and ambitious people who want to do interesting work, and those smart and ambitious people get grants and funding. When you get a lot of smart people who can work outside of the constraints of a regular marketplace (meaning the products don’t have to make money instantly), because they have grant or foundation funding, you end up with a lot of very innovative and visionary products that might not have been produced otherwise.”

Grace Teo is one of those smart people. During her tenure at a Boston area hospital, she met two women, multiple sclerosis patients who were dressed starkly due to the loss of their fine motor skills. This one meeting ultimately led to the creation of Open Style Lab, a program and accelerator run through MIT’s Assistive Technology Club. The lead photo of this post shows Open Style Lab’s Rayn Jacket, which you can read about on Ablersite. Grace needed both the hospital setting to happen upon a need and MIT’s resources to see her idea to fruition.

I asked Jeff Coburn to elaborate, telling him about Joe’s thoughts on the progressive state of Massachusetts state:

“If you took away the schools and hospitals, maybe you would be left with folks who valued freedom to do whatever you feel is best (those streaks of libertarianism that are valued in parts of NE) but you would have no means or support to actually create anything.”

When it comes to MIT, Grace Teo’s Open Style Lab is in good company. Eone’s Bradley Tactile Timepiece is another Assistive Technology Club innovation. Really, you just need touch it (and if you’re sighted, see it) to be a believer. It’s a timepiece for the visually impaired and/or fashionable. Imagine the ability to tell time without having to look at it. Eone is a reminder that items made with sensitivity to people with differing abilities can serve the greater population as a whole.

Eone Bradley Tactile Watch

What is this web that binds Bostonians, creating opportunity to meet and influence one another? One of the leading thinkers in Assistive Tech and Assistive design happens to live in the Boston area. Sara Hendren teaches design at Olin College where she just started the Adaptation + Ability research lab. She served as Open Style Lab’s mentor during their first session. Sara makes her insights accessible to the world through her blog Ablersite. Her influence has spread outside of Boston, as Senator Carlucci helped make New York the first state to implement her accessible icon project, an updated wheelchair icon.

Accessible Icon Project

Time for a story. I was invited by a friend to a New York Giant’s game (don’t worry, we lost). While there, I was introduced to her friend, an employee of Met Life Stadium. I told him about my passion for inclusive design and he said I should meet his sister. She’s an engineer, she’s passionate about assistive tech and her name is Sara. I couldn’t help but ask… Hendren? No, he said, but she does live in Boston. About a week later I told Grace Teo about the conversation and Grace couldn’t help but laugh. My newfound friend’s sister was involved with Open Style Lab. I’m telling you, if it’s inclusive, is happening in Boston.

Please don’t just assume that this concept of inclusion only pertains to the world of disability. Open Style Lab is an accelerator that designs for differing needs. But there’s another accelerator that focuses on the life of the garment. Factory45 is the brainchild of Shannon Whitehead, a leading sustainability advocate who focuses on “cradle to cradle” meaning there is a full loop from the start to finish in the lifecycle of the garment.

I asked Shannon what are the features of ideal sustainable garment? This is her bucket list:

  • Materials can be composted after their full life.
  • A transparent supply chain so that every single step, from the growing of the fiber to the labor, can be traced and held accountable.
  • Workers are paid a fair and living wage, meaning they are able to live off of their monthly pay and save for their future.
  • Businesses are localized and independent, so money made from the selling of the garment is invested back into the local economy.
  • Wash cold, hang dry.

Gamine Workwear, a good friend of Factory45 exhibits many of Shannon Whitehead’s sustainable ideals. Taylor Johnston grew up in Maryland, but found herself in Boston after her husband took a job at Harvard. As a professional horticulturist at Boston’s famous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Taylor felt she was unable to demonstrate the pride she has in her work in the garments she wore. So she designed a pair of Workwear jeans for women. Handmade in the USA, Gamine proudly makes a sustainable garment that pays homage to the traditions of American made workwear. The wait list for these jeans is more than 500 deep.

Gamine Workwear Jeans

I don’t know if it’s the nature of Taylor’s products or if it’s her style, but she serves as my reminder that beauty is what attracts us to fashion as a culture. Taylor quickly embraced Boston for its European Style, saying “There’s something kind of awesome about ivy style, Yankee fashion (legit dressing down and having a uniform), and the idea of being in and around nature.”

Taylor is not alone in her philosophies of sustainability, ingenuity, beauty and the human body.

Ministry of Supply makes something I can only describe as ‘actual wearables’. We tend to think of tech accessories (and gadgets) as wearables, but Ministry of supply designs innovative menswear through technically advanced processes and materials.

Ministry of Supply Apollo

As is the case with Open Style Lab and Eone, Ministry of Supply is the brainchild of three MIT students. During a conversation with Aman Advani, cofounder of Ministry of Supply, I told him that my friend Joe experiences Boston as a small big city. Aman is of this mind. He finds Boston to be a T-Community. The horizontal demonstrates the scope of community and relationships. The vertical demonstrates opportunity. In sum, Boston offers all the opportunities a big city can provide with the community feel of a small city.

As was the case with so many innovative inclusive designers (specifically Eone), Ministry of Supply got their feet off the ground with the assistance of Kickstarter. And just like so many innovative inclusive designers, Ministry of Supply blew their fundraising goal out of the water.

Ministry of Supply uses a process called body mapping to determine needs and create innovative solutions. By finding materials that offer heat management, moisture management, odor control and allow for dynamic motion, their clothing can suit the needs of anyone from a baseball player (your very own Craig Breslow is an investor) to your average Joe to people with medical needs and sensitivities.

Every product is non-toxic, highly sustainable and ethically made. It’s worth mentioning the launch of Ministry of Supply’s ‘1 In, 1 Out Policy’. I’ll let them explain:

“Once you receive your new Ministry of Supply gear, go ahead and box up older items of yours for donation, adhering both the enclosed prepaid shipping label and blue “1 In, 1 Out” sticker to the outside of the box. Once we receive your items, your items will be donated to an appropriate organization.”

John Romard of @BostonAttitude feels that Boston is a city that has innovated itself and changed over the last 20 years. And honestly, innovation needed to happen. I visited Boston in the late 90s for a wedding and vividly remember how carsick the big dig made me. That was nearly 20 years ago and John does make a very valid point that in the “last 12 years with 3 Super Bowl, 3 World Series, the Bruins Stanley Cup is all part of it too. it’s a fun city live in!” I suppose in some ways, the possibilities probably do seem endless for Bostonians.

It feels to me like Boston is making clothing for all bodies, treating bodies as they are, not as they should be. And in doing so, the garments that come out of Boston are both beautiful, covetable and joyfully made.

And I cannot finish without acknowledge the Boston Marathon tragedy of yesteryear. We live in a society where the greatest advances in prosthetics and other devices tend to happen during times of war. Or as Boston has taught me, during times of national disaster. By simply supporting and caring for your survivors, you have given a gift to the disability community beyond any numerical value. When you speak about, write about and discuss the importance of assistive devices and fashions, you give them the opportunity to evolve. So Boston, tell me this. Is it possible to be both #BostonStrong and #BostonInclusive? Or is that too progressive for even you?

Yankees Boston Strong

I could not write extensively about every inclusive company in the Boston area, but I wanted to include as many as possible, so here are a few more standouts:

Project Repat creates a high quality, affordable t-shirt quilt with minimal carbon impact that ‘repatriates’ textile jobs back to the United States. And because it is a web that Boston is weaving, the founder of Project Repat is Shannon Whitehead’s other (though in this relationship, I’m sure there’s no better) half.

Catie’s Closet improves school attendance by providing clothing and basic necessities to students living in poverty in MA and NH.

ReFleece designs and sells travel and organizational accessories made from up cycled fleece and wool.

MassChallenge is the world’s largest no strings attached startup accelerator and competition.

Please let me know if I have missed anyone.

Special thanks to everyone included for their time and thought. I took a moment to thank Jeff Coburn over email, offering to send him a Yankees hat. He was into the idea, he said he was potty training his son. I retracted the offer, as I could not determine whether the hat would be used as a treat or a toilet.

What Others Are Saying

  1. Patrick Conboy January 14, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    Yes, another group we follow at ELDERLUXE is the Institute for Human Centered Design.

  2. Jeff Byrnes January 14, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    The last paragraph is spot-on Coburn. Love it.

    As for the article as a whole; really great stuff. Love hearing such good things about our city!

  3. John Romard January 15, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    Thanks for the mention, loved the Boston Love!! GoSox!! 😉

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