Fashion design project includes medical innovation

When you think “compression garments,” you normally think “grandma hose,” not “high fashion.”

But a team of fashion designers at UC have joined with medical professionals that treat a genetic disease that affects connective tissue to change not only those perceptions, but the lives of those suffering from the condition. 

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) affects hundreds of thousands of Americans, limiting their mobility and endurance. The multi-system disease creates joint instability, dizziness and unrelenting severe pain. Even pulling on jeans can cause someone with EDS to dislocate a shoulder.

When physical therapists approached Margaret Voelker-Ferrier, of UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, with the problems that people with EDS experience when simply putting on clothes, she knew she could put her 30 years of bodywear design experience to good use. 

"I started as bra designer," says Voelker-Ferrier. "That has always been a passion for me, engineering things to solve a problem. Making things that are both beautiful and functional."

She gave the project to fashion design students in her bodywear class, explaining the challenges of EDS sufferers as well as the basics of clothing design. "The students loved the project and I think they did a marvelous job," she says.

Voelker-Ferrier worked with Brooke Brandewie on design solutions, which have been highlighted as part of the Cincinnati Innovates competition.

The clothes they designed – from dresses and pants to an evening gown -- support and stabilize body joints and ligaments. Made from high-tech materials, they provide comfort and style simultaneously. One shirt, for example, has adjustable straps that help hold shoulders in place. 

“The fact that they are designing clothing that is functional and therapeutic and beautiful and doesn’t look like a medical device is exciting,” says Candace Ireton, MD, who suffers from EDS. She saw the clothes during the Ehlers-Danlos National Foundation Learning Conference, which was held in Cincinnati this month. 

Both Brandewie and Voelker-Ferrier attended the conference to gather measurements of EDS patients and collect data as they continue to develop their designs. While designed for EDS, the same fashions could be adapted for use by people with autism, MS and arthritis. 

"It was really wonderful to be able to meet people and talk with them about this," Voelker-Ferrier says. "It’s kind of amazing." 

For now, she's working on collecting more data, finding some popular sizes to work with and eventually leading an interdisciplinary studio at UC to design prototypes. Eventually, the design maven hopes to turn her problem-solving fashion sense into a small business that will target the needs of people with chronic medical conditions as well as Baby Boomers. 

Fashion, after all, can provide a mental, as well as physical, boost, says EDSer Ireton. “Some of the clothing is sexy,” she says. “You can feel better, keep your ribs in place and look cute, too.”
For more information about the design project, visit their Cincinnati Innovates submission.

By Elissa Yancey

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