It's not often that you see prosthetic limbs on the runway -- the most memorable, of course, being the wooden pair made for Aimee Mullins as part of Alexander McQueen's S/S 1999 show.
But the works by Alleles Design Studio, which appeared on the Vawk runway at Toronto Fashion Week in March, may just prove that prosthetic limbs have a place in fashion, too.
That was the goal of McCauley Wanner and Ryan Palibroda when they founded Alleles just last year. They met at Canada's University of Calgary; though Wanner studied industrial design and Palibroda studied architecture, they were both part of the same college.
The seeds of Alleles started as Wanner's thesis project, but it almost didn't happen. "The school didn't want her to do it," Palibroda explains. "The department and advisors thought, 'How can you pair someone with a prosthetic with something so frivolous as fashion?'"
Wanner pushed back. She had been studying the medical design field specifically, and found it "really sad" that so many areas of medical appliances were taboo to talk about.
"I looked at hearing aids, walkers and wheelchairs and stuff like that," she says. "This one resonated with me, the prosthetic industry, because there's no options and everything was really, really expensive."
Luckily, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Wanner found through research that there was actually a great interest in having more artistic, aesthetically pleasing options for prosthetics, and she was able to get her thesis project approved. Still, Wanner and Palibroda graduated in 2011; Alleles wasn't officially on the market until October 2013.
"Ryan and I kept talking about the idea, about how to take it from a school project to something that's actually real," Wanner says of the time gap. "We started saving up money so we could buy fabrication equipment, and one day we could afford it, so we quit our jobs and moved and decided we would give it a go."
Currently, there's only one other company offering the style of design Alleles provides; its work, according to Wanner and Palibroda, is entirely custom. "Someone will have an idea, dragonflies or flames or something, and they work with them to do that," Wanner says. "But that's also part of the reason that their product sells between $4,000 to $6,000, because doing custom work [is] really time consuming and involved."
If these custom designs are the equivalent of couture, Alleles aims to be the ready-to-wear counterpart. The team's designs clip onto endoskeletal prosthetics, which not only provide style, but also the shape of a limb without the need for medical fittings. More importantly to the duo, they're affordable: Most of Alleles's covers sell between $300 and $400.
Palibroda and Wanner come up with all the designs themselves through a collaborative process. "We're pretty fluid," Wanner explains. "If Ryan's working on a design, he'll get back and pass the file to me and vice versa, and we end up doubling and quadrupling our design. We're starting to get a pretty huge library of design to pull from."
That library of designs will come in handy, as they hope to release new designs at least twice a year -- again, following a fashion formula. Currently, there are two collections for sale on Alleles's website: Digital Rococo F/W 2013 and Digital Rococo S/S 2014. While the designs aren't custom, the fit is: The customer provides certain measurements to ensure that the cover will properly snap on the existing prosthetic.
It's a totally different approach to an industry that is very niche, so it's perhaps not entirely shocking that they've made waves in the community.
"It's been interesting feedback from prosthetists," Palibroda says, laughing. "They'll call us and in the span of two minutes, they're like, 'This is the greatest thing in the world, it's so exciting,' and then they're yelling at us that we don't know anything, and then two seconds later, it's, 'Oh my god this is so great.'"
"It becomes almost not really about the product so much as what we've done in the industry, with making it accessible and our approach to releasing collections is a fashion approach," Wanner adds.
If the reaction of prosthetists has been mixed, the reaction of customers has been anything but. They share the story of a friend, J.P., who lost his leg to cancer as a teenager. He was mortified, they say, about the choices he had but was too afraid of seeming ungrateful to say anything.
Now he wears designs by Alleles. "It's crazy he's wearing shorts again because for him, he'd be walking down the street and someone would stop him and say, 'Oh my god what happened?'" Palibroda explains. "It's so awkward because it's a super personal question. So for him, when he's wearing shorts and he goes out with the cover, it's like --"
"'Cool prosthetic, where did you get it?'" Wanner interjects.
"They ask him about the design and stuff," Palibroda continues. "It's a less personal, more fun, positive conversation."
And that, according to the duo, is the general consensus: It's more a psychological aid than a physical one, geared more towards changing the conversation about something which might otherwise be sad or uncomfortable. They say that customers have been understanding of any kinks in the production process, because they know that Alleles is the new guy on the market, and they're so excited to have a new option.
For their part, Palibroda and Wanner are just happy to have found a way to apply their artistic skills in a way that's meaningful. Wanner expresses hopes that eventually buying prosthetics like this will become as easy as buying eyeglasses.
"Our whole driver is to remove it from the medical world," she says. "That's our goal, to make it so stupid simple that it's easy for people to be able to get it and to use it."
"It's exciting for us because things keep changing, things keep evolving and there's always new stuff coming out," Palibroda agrees. "We're always going to try to evolve things using feedback and things we come up with ourselves."
So could Alleles Design Studio end up on the runway again in the future? Fingers crossed for Digital Rococo Spring 2015...