Fashion Design Students Collaborate with Special Olympic Athletes for Inclusive and Innovative Uniforms
Special Olympics was founded more than 50 years ago, and since then has grown to encompass events and competitions that take place throughout the year, and all around the world. They are the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities, and count more than 5 million athletes.
Three years ago, the organization began a partnership with the BFA Fashion Design program at Parsons, where students, in a semester-long course, collaborate with different athletes to design new uniforms that allow the athletes to perform to their fullest potential. Since the partnership began, students have developed innovative design ideas together with swimmers, powerlifters, ice skaters, runners, and more.
Lucy Jones, Fashion Design ’16, and Ranjit Lalvani co-taught this year’s class, where students co-designed uniforms with swimmers and powerlifters, and debuted their proposed designs in a thesis session critiqued in part by Nigel Barker, the celebrated photographer and TV personality. Five athletes participated in the course this year, and it remains a highlight for the student designers as well. The thesis presentations can all be found on YouTube.
“It’s hard to say what was the biggest learning outcome from this class since it brought challenges every step of the way, but without a doubt it taught me to be compassionate and trusting when invited into another person’s life,” shared Izzy Wu, Fashion Design ‘23. “I think speaking clearly and being confident in my designs was something the athletes were drawn to, and it meant practicing and putting effort into my public speaking and presentation skills.”
Jessica Spitz, one of the Special Olympics New York athletes in the course, was inspired to participate because of Parsons’ reputation in the fashion and design community, as well as spreading the message that inclusion and fashion can go hand in hand.
“What I enjoyed most about working with the students was seeing how passionate they are, how they really took our ideas and how it was very inclusive,” said Spitz. “We would receive emails each week asking for feedback, so this was truly a collaborative effort. What I love most is that it makes me feel empowered that I was a part of creating such a work of art and it makes me smile when I see it.”
The course is structured so that rather than the athletes serving as clients, dictating their wants and needs, they work alongside Fashion Design students to co-design their uniforms, with various feedback sessions and interviews to ensure the final product aligns with the vision of both athlete and designer. Proposed designs run the gamut from addressing issues the athletes had with their wrestling singlets, to updating traditional athletic gear with new colors and designs that better reflect an individual athletes’ personality.
“This class was the first time I was introduced to the world as a designer and it felt like I was being heard when I brought ideas to the table,” explained Wu. “It provided the experience of connecting with people in the industry and building a relationship with a community that could say “no” to my designs. A collaboration like Parsons and Special Olympics makes students interact with bigger concepts and communities outside of school and provides growth in ways I have never seen in a classroom before.”
The educational mission and vision of Parsons is grounded in the idea that design can help solve some of the world’s most pressing issues, and the partnership with Special Olympics is one of many recent examples where students, faculty, and alumni are challenging themselves to develop innovative solutions.
Students in the School of Constructed Environments recently collaborated with NIO, a leading Chinese manufacturer of premium smart electric vehicles, to design new products with leftover materials from car manufacturing, including air bag fabric, seat belts and buckles, and car seat cover, while MA Fashion Studies students at Parsons Paris partnered with the Palais Galliera—Musée de la mode de la ville de Paris for a research project that explored the problematic history of certain objects.
For Wu, the collaboration with Special Olympics made her a more considerate, flexible, and passionate designer, and gave her the opportunity to see her designs represented and accepted by the athletes.
“The experience showed how difficult it can be creating a project that simultaneously shows the athletes’ strong sense of identity and my own choices as a designer,” she explained. “But to be able to bring the athletes’ wishes to life and see the glimmer of happiness in their eyes was well worth every compromise.”
Spitz echoes Wu, noting that “I think working with Parsons is so important because it does several things, it benefits the students by teaching them how to make adaptive clothing and also to make the impossible possible, it also creates inclusion.”
The course also gave Spitz insight into the fashion industry, where she sees many parallels with Special Olympics.
“I felt like this course is incredible and gives us athletes an amazing opportunity. In the fashion world they kind of use our Athlete Oath:
Let me win
But if I can not win
Let me be brave in the attempt
With that said, in fashion you try and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but you keep trying.”