In a Parsons class called "Design Communication" in 2012, Welsh student Lucy Jones was faced with an overwhelming assignment. "One of my teachers said to me, 'Design a project that could change the world,'" she remembers. "And I just thought, 'I’m in fashion — how am I going to change the world?'"
Jones turned to her cousin Jake who, despite being paralyzed on the left side of his body, goes about all of his normal daily tasks independently — except for dressing himself. "I remember thinking how strange it was... that I'm at one of the best design schools in the world and we're not tackling these issues," she says. She designed a pair of pants for Jake that he could put on with one hand. "Now I laugh at them, they’re are like magnetic trousers, they are so funny," she says. "That was my first trial."
As it turns out, the project that at first felt impossible set her on a path that defined her college experience. At the Parsons Fashion Benefit on Tuesday, Jones won the coveted Womenswear Designer of the Year award with a collection designed for self-propelled, seated disabled people — a segment of society completely ignored by the fashion industry today.
Jones began research in the summer of 2014, when she decided it would be the focus of her senior collection. With the help of United Cerebral Palsy in Manhattan and Brooklyn, she conducted focus groups and eventually interviewed over 100 disabled people over email and in person about how their clothing fits, taking detailed measurements of six.
"The results were really overwhelming," she says. "Everyone was telling me they just didn’t feel considered in fashion and they just had to make do."
Around the same time, she posted ad on sites like Craiglist and Yahoo for one person who would be willing to serve as a sounding board and fit model as she developed her patterns. She soon found Ronnie, a woman with multiple sclerosis and limited mobility, who she met with every two weeks over the summer for fittings and feedback. "When I met Ronnie something clicked," says Jones. "She’s so funny.” Ronnie even took part in a video presentation of the collection that opened the student runway show at the Parsons benefit.
"I just started all these trials on [Ronnie] and really noticing problems and started solving them — that's how the project came to life," Jones explains. Some of the most complicated problems arise in the pant design. Standard pants are too short at the ankles and too low at the back. Jones also had to consider how kneecaps change shape when bent, leading her to remove extra fabric at the bend so pant legs can fall flat. She took into account how the fat and muscle spreads in the butt and thighs when seated, as well as eliminated uncomfortable fabric bunching at the crotch. For tops, she reinforced elbows that are always leaning on armrests, removed excess bulk and made room for the more developed muscles that self-propelled people have in the shoulders and arms. All in all, anatomical concerns were just as important as aesthetic ones — as was emotional comfort.
"If Ronnie's going to a restaurant and someone wants to take her jacket off, you don’t want it to be embarrassing for both of them," says Jones, explaining how changed the entry points into garments. "When you see a familiar thing like a zipper, you just know you have to undo it. It's not alienating, it's familiar." Jones says the zippers were actually Ronnie's idea.
Throughout the process, Jones has maintained a democratic approach. Her designs could be worn by anyone who wants clothing that makes sitting easier, whether they are disabled or not. "I didn’t want to be an adaptive designer, I said that from the beginning," she says. "Just like there is a 'petite' section, a 'maternity' section, I want disability to be included in designers approach from the very beginning."
So what's next for the 23-year-old student? "I need to touch the ground first," she says, laughing. As if the womenswear award wasn't enough — presented to her by designer Marc Jacobs, no less — Jones had another big win on Tuesday. She and fellow student Blaire Moore were chosen as winners of the "Empowering Imagination" competition sponsored by Parsons and Kering. She and Moore will get to visit Kering's production factories and brand facilities in Italy, display their collections in Saks Fifth Avenue windows and get a mentorship from Style.com.
Jones has also received a $2,500 grant from The New School's social innovation initiative to continue working on her seated collection, which she plans to do while she gains experience as a designer. "For me, I want to get my feet wet first, I want to work at a company," she says. "I'm not leaving [the "Seated Collection"], I'm going to work on it all the time on the side."
It's a tremendous way to culminate her college career, especially considering Jones she didn't know much about Parsons when she applied in 2011 as a backup option for U.K. schools. "I can't believe I thought Parsons was going to be my plan B," she admits. But the school turned out to be the perfect environment for her to figure out a way to change the world with fashion. "The way they tackle social issues and innovation and sustainability is amazing," she says.
Keep an eye on Jones — she's one to watch.