Design Inclusivity: Parsons X Special Olympics

In the Spring of 2020, Parsons School of Design partnered with Special Olympics to create a class that paired athletes with student designers. The first collaboration of its kind, the course offered Parsons students the unique opportunity to work one-on-one with Special Olympic athletes and, together, create sustainable, inclusive clothing to be worn before, after, and during the athletes’ competitions.

“All of the class members and athletes demonstrated a new possibility for systems innovation in fashion: How can co-design, how can collaboration, totally reimagine process?,” said Brendan McCarthy, co-Director of the BFA Fashion Design program and Assistant Professor of Fashion. “Our mission at Parsons is to create the most expansive, accessible, inclusive learning environment that can empower our designers to use the power of fashion design to change our world and make an impact through a deep love of garments. That same spirit of inclusion, that intrepid courage around how we can reimagine society is also embraced by Special Olympics.”

Led by faculty Ranjit Lalvani, Yuchen Zhang, and faculty mentor Grace Jun, its inaugural course, the class partnered with Special Olympics New York’s Ice Skating team. Before the COVID-19 Pandemic hit, the class had the opportunity to go to Bryant Park and watch the team practice. The students were then able to bring that knowledge back to the classroom and begin implementing it into their design.

“(On the ice,) we’re not just moving forward and backward, we’re not walking. We need material that’s not only forward, back, side to side, but spherical because figure skaters move in every single direction,” explained Emi Freese, Special Olympics New York figure skating coach. “So having the Parsons students understand that and realize that this is a different type of material that we’re working with, then on top of that you have athletes who are like ‘Well that’s uncomfortable, I don’t like wearing that.’ It’s not just fashion, it’s what’s functional as well.”

The collaboration gave Parsons students the ability to focus on more than just fashion as their designs were created with the athletes’ likes, dislikes, and comfort levels in mind.

“Originally I signed up for this class because I thought it would be interesting to be involved in the Special Olympics and the Olympics in some way,” said Parsons student Abby Gaskin, BFA Fashion Design ’21, “but little did I know that this class would completely transform how I approached my design practice.”

Abby recently talked to No Kill Magazine about the collaboration, sharing what she learned from working alongside Special Olympics athlete Mickey Chan.

“I really learned the importance of finding a compromise,” Gaskin told No Kill Magazine. “With this experience, Mickey would often voice his opinion about aspects he liked that wouldn’t be my first choice, and I’m sure there were things I would say too that he was skeptical about. Even with this, we were able to find a middle ground.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, the course was forced to go virtual, but despite the challenges, the collaboration didn’t stop.

“COVID was a huge pivot, but everyone took it together and marched forward,” Freese said. “It really showed me the resilience everyone has because this program was the pilot program. In the semesters going forward, the classes have no excuse not to be successful in this because we went through the ringer.”

Now in its second year, the partnership between Parsons and Special Olympics has only continued to grow. This semester, the class is led by faculty members Soojin Kang and Ranjit Lalvani, and, in addition to the Special Olympics athletes, the class has had the opportunity to learn from athletes from the Women’s Tennis Association as well as Special Olympics Celebrity Ambassador Nigel Barker.

The class also partnered with CLO3D, a cutting edge, digital 3-D fashion design software company. While working remotely, students are using the program to create digital designs based on custom body avatars for each of the Special Olympics athletes. As the collaboration continues, Parsons students and Special Olympians continue to reimagine the role fashion and sport can play in society and in advancing the principles of inclusion.

“What happened in the innovative classes of Parsons was a movement not for the athletes, but from them, and I think all of us have a lot to learn from the example set by these athletes,” David Evangelista, Regional President and Managing Director of Special Olympics Europe Eurasia, said. “We have a lot to gain from them, and in a year riddled with despair and uncertainty, I’m proud to say that there’s one thing you can be certain of, and that’s the grit and determination of these athletes.”

Brendan McCarthy and Emi Freese talked more about the partnership on “Listen in With KNN” presented by FOX Sports Radio. You can listen to their interview here.

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