Finding the fun in functional

Columbia College fashion students design adaptive clothing to assist those living with physical challenges.

Ben Graham, vice president of marketing at Joe & Bella, looks at a jacket designed by a team of Columbia College fashion students, including Adam Salame (right foreground).

Ben Graham, vice president of marketing at Joe & Bella, a Chicago company creating and selling adaptive clothing, looks at the removable sleeve on a jacket designed by a team of Columbia College fashion students, including Adam Salame (right foreground).

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Fashion is cool and fun, daring and young.

You can see that just walking into Reyes Witt’s classroom at Columbia College Chicago and noticing what her students are wearing. The sleeveless cowl T-shirt on Adam Salame, 20. The off-the-shoulder black batwing blouse on Paige Bernby, 20. The black slip worn as a dress over a turtleneck on Sandra Walkowicz, 21. Not to overlook Madison Chain’s hot pink beret worn with a sequined miniskirt and white knee-high boots.

But fashion can be functional as well as fun, geared toward seniors instead of kids, as evidenced by the course name, “Design Solutions for Fashion Design,” and by what Witt’s students have been up to for the last 15 weeks: creating clothing to be worn by those facing physical challenges, such as the mobility limitations of the elderly, or being in a wheelchair, wearing absorbent undergarments or requiring help to dress.

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Students conceived their designs while learning to use new 3D software, then created prototype garments. Today the top three designs are being presented to Joe & Bella, a new Chicago company that designs and sells adaptive apparel for seniors and people with disabilities.

Once the students are ready, that is.

“Some people are still sewing,” says Witt, as the class begins.

Ben Graham, vice president of marketing at Joe & Bella, arrives.

“We’re going to pick one, pass it on to our design team to finish it,” he says. “Put it up on our website and sell it.”

First up is a convertible unisex blue jacket with zip-off sleeves.

“We had a few issues,” says Salame, pointing to the prototype on a seamstress dummy. “We used this material that we discussed last time.”

The pockets were moved toward the front.

“Normally we think of pockets on the side, but that’s not really accessible when you’re in a wheelchair,” says Norma Espinoza, 20, her blue pinstriped top accented with green earrings.

Columbia College design student Faith Redeaux shows the construction of pants with zipped panels designed to facilitate dressing.  The class is taught by Reyes Witt (left, in blue).

Columbia College design student Faith Redeaux shows the construction of pants with zipped panels designed to facilitate dressing. The class is taught by Reyes Witt (left, in blue).

Julie Lucas/Courtesy of Columbia College Chicago

Second is a pair of beige sleepwear pants.

“Our focus here was to make easy access for incontinent people,” explains Faith Redeaux, 20, wearing a black vest and purple faux leather pants. “Both panels come completely off.”

The elastic in the waistband did not want to cooperate.

“We figured it out this weekend,” she says. “We were killing ourselves over this one.”

Columbia College fashion student Hugh Colin (center) shows a poncho design to Joe & Bella vice president of marketing Ben Graham (left), part of a class project to create adaptive clothing for seniors and people with disabilities.

Columbia College fashion student Hugo Colin (center) shows a poncho design to Joe & Bella Vice President of Marketing Ben Graham (left), part of a class project to create adaptive clothing for seniors and people with disabilities.

Julie Lucas/Courtesy of Columbia College Chicago

Last up, a plaid women’s blouse/poncho combination.

“This shows the evolution of our design process,” says Hugo Colin, 22, wearing a pompadour and jeans jacket. “Easy to get someone dressed. You can put this over their heads, zip this up. Less hassle. It gives your customers more options”

As the presentations wrap up, Graham offers encouragement.

“All three hit it out of the park,” he says. “Way to go. This is really amazing. Picking one product to move forward with is not easy.”

He reminds the students that there’s an important lifestyle element to fashion design.

“What you’re doing here is real,” he says. “This is going to impact people in a significant way. Doing things to help other folks live easier lives and look good while they’re doing it.”

Graham has nothing but praise for the students.

“They worked so hard,” he says later. “They listened really carefully. They were able to take constructive criticism like professionals. They figured out our mission pretty quick.”

That mission is to overcome consumer resistance to adaptive clothing for seniors, to make it more fashionable and popular, like baby clothes or maternity wear, which are also types of adaptive clothing.

“We’re trying to normalize it,” Graham says. “It’s pretty normal to have a physical disability. It’s very normal to get old. Let’s make something beautiful. Let’s celebrate these clothes.”

Graham eventually picks the poncho/top combination, which should be on the Joe & Bella website for preorder within 60 days. Some proceeds will be donated back to Columbia as a scholarship.

The students had no trouble shifting gears.

“I think a lot of glamour and glitz when I design,” says Salame. “So it’s really exciting to go into this realm and think of functionality rather than appearance. It’s all been very exciting melding fashion with innovation and adaptability.”

“It’s really rewarding to know we can help somebody solve real-life issues they have every day,” says Grace Gomez, 20, wearing a mocha sweater dress with pearl-studded black stockings. “It’s something people don’t think about. We live in an ableist society, and people don’t think about how others need assistance.”

The winning design, a blouse/poncho combination, will go up for pre-orders on the Joe & Bella web site in several months. It’s the work of students Paige Berndt (from left), Heavenleigh Scott, Hugo Colin and Madison Chain.

The winning design, a blouse/poncho combination, will go up for pre-orders on the Joe & Bella website in several months. It’s the work of students Paige Berndt (from left), Heavenleigh Scott, Hugo Colin and Madison Chain.

Julie Lucas/Courtesy of Columbia College Chicago

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