The Annual Fashion Design Show, the flagship event for students at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts in St. Louis, opened with a first in 93 years: a group of 15 children with functional needs from the St. Louis area wearing clothing designed especially for them. The special outfits are the result of the “Made to Model” program run by WashU students – nearly a year in the making.
Inspired by a national program called The Trail of Dreams, a foundation that promotes inclusion, acceptance, and opportunity in the fashion industry for people with disabilities, Made to Model at WashU is student-led and managed, and has worked with school district community partners St. Louis County Special; STL variety; and KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) St. Louis to find the models.
Beginning in the spring of 2021, 32 WashU students, along with faculty advisors from the Sam Fox School and the School of Medicine’s Occupational Therapy (OT) program, worked on the project in various capacities, from design to therapy to logistics, says Shelei Pan, a rising arts and science junior and catalyst for the Made to Model program. Former benefactor Paula Varsalona, BFA ’71, played a key role in advising students and donating tissue. Financial support came from the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement; the Women’s Society of the University of Washington; and CityStudioSTL.
Meeting first on Zoom and then in person for initial consultations, measurements and fittings, 12 WashU student designers from all academic disciplines worked with 15 young people and their parents from across the St. Louis area. Together with school counselors Sam Fox and OT, they sought to learn not only each child’s specific needs, but also their specific desires for what was comfortable to wear. The result was runway-ready clothes that made them feel like models – and an unforgettable Fashion Design Show opening on April 30.
“These clothes are a form of expression,” says Jennifer Ingram, a lecturer at the Sam Fox School, who worked with Anna Jerdee, a young arts and science student, to create clothes for Andrew Tollefson. “Customers have told us which colors, silhouettes, materials and details they prefer. We solved the problems with empathetic design by identifying aesthetic and functional needs. After assessing needs, we are able to give back by using our talents to create a product that meets a larger need and purpose.
“Problem solving has always been something I’ve loved in fashion,” Ingram says.
And there were plenty of thrills to be had in the Holmes Lounge on the evening of the Fashion Design Show, from nervous last-minute adjustments by designers backstage, to smiles on models’ faces as they walked the same runway as all other models. And the models’ parents, who couldn’t take pictures fast enough and beamed with pride. Parents like Ann Tollefson, Andrew’s mother.
“In a wheelchair, you have a harness and seat belts and side supports, and all of those things keep you from putting on a nice suit,” says Ann Tollefson. “The WashU team was very resourceful in coming up with a solution that also took into account that most of the fabric he’s wearing ends up in his knees, or is all fluffy or too big on the sides. . Jennifer and Anna took all of those things into account and really tailored her costume. It was wonderful to work with them.
The Made to Model team, meanwhile, was happy to have brought design awareness to children of all ages with functional needs. “Ella and Andrew and all the models who have participated in Made to Model are the voices that fashion designers looking to make clothing more accessible should listen to,” says Pan. “They and their families came up with wonderful ideas that led to brainstorming sessions and teaching moments with our faculty mentors that made me and the fashion design students reconsider the construction of traditional clothing.”