Meet Be Brave, an inclusive athletics line. Originally, when I started conducting interviews for this piece, it was clear to me that the original scope through the lens of careers was too myopic. Be Brave goes further than that for a more inclusive society, weaving together threads of the community from athletes interacting with designers for functional and stylish clothing, that resonates beyond the fabric where everybody wins.
Special Olympics and students at the New School’s Parsons School of Design recently partnered to conceptualize, design, and develop tennis and track and field outfits that are both stylish and functional for people with intellectual disabilities. Students worked with professors, athletes, and fashion photographer and Special Olympics Champion Ambassador Nigel Barker.
From a career perspective, students learned about functionality from communicating frequently with the athletes, but ultimately, this partnership goes above and beyond.
The inclusive athletics line, Be Brave, made its debut a few days ago during Fashion Week in New York City by celebrating people with disabilities and giving talented Special Olympics athletes a way to look and perform their best. (The collection has been reviewed and supported by the Women Tennis Association players.)
Liza Ambrosini, Special Olympics New York athlete in tennis and alpine skiing has won 19 gold, 11 silver, and two bronze medals, was excited to be part of a class dedicated to including people with intellectual disabilities who are strong sports competitors. “I loved being part of the class. I liked answering the designers’ questions and having input into the designs that they made. The designs are awesome!”
During the pandemic, athletes and students communicated over email and Zoom, and Ambrosini said some tennis clothes are not comfortable. “Whether an athlete has a disability or not, sports clothing should be functional. Tennis clothes should have pockets to hold tennis balls, for example. They shouldn’t be too tight. But they should still be fashionable. Athletes want to look and be able to play like a champion!”
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Dana Kosber, fashion design student at Parsons, enrolled in the class, The Collection x Systems Design Studio x Specialized Studio in collaboration with Special Olympics and Nigel Barker “to challenge myself to create individual and needs-based clothing that could serve a community.”
Kosber designed a sleeveless two-tiered sky blue, black and white sports dress for Liza Ambrosini, a Special Olympics tennis athlete.
“It was great to create and design with deliberate intention,” said Kosber who performed fitness tests on the garment for durability while designing it. “Working with and getting to know Liza Ambrosini and Melanie Grassi [Special Olympics New York tennis athletes] was the best part of the design process. The design was primarily driven by what they needed, their preferences, and their personal playing styles.”
Communication was constant throughout the process so the end result, Kosber said, was very personal to flesh out their preferences of “design ideas, sketches, and eventually garments. I felt it was a community effort.”
Kosber balanced artistry with functionality by using a microfiber sports jersey and spandex mix. “From the feeling of the fabric in movement while running across the court to how tight/loose a dress feels around the waist while turning to swing the racket, it allowed me to take into account the ergonomic quality athletes require from clothing and the iterative/analytical process it takes to achieve that. Moreover, it has greatly impacted my collaborative design skills of creating a garment that fully embodies an individual’s needs and preferences.”
Kosber credited Barker for his mentorship, profound and insightful reviews and advice on her designs. “He really encouraged me to find my design voice and find what we could personally offer to the athletes. He prompted me to think introspectively and draw on my own experiences and strong suits to create the most personalized project I could, all the while reminding me the importance of design inclusivity.”
Through virtual check-ins, Barker offered tailored advice to create sustainable, inclusive clothing to be worn before, after, and during the athletes’ competitions.
Barker said, “Every time I got on those calls, 20, 30 people, the athletes were there, the designers were there, the questions back and forth, the really listening to what the athletes have to say. The athletes have opinions on what they wanted and what they needed. It’s like they’re being heard for the first time when it comes to design in clothing. When it comes to fashion design, we haven’t been inclusive and diverse at all. And obviously in sports, functional, technical wear, it’s crucial.”
“It’s the true essence of inclusion. You’ve got the leading people in each field coming together for everyone and that’s what made it so unique and special.” — Nigel Barker
Barker said of the ongoing program, “Everyone was gung-ho. It gave everyone a boost of positivity during hard times and such creativity came out of it. The athletes were over the moon, like it is for any layperson seeing something created and designed. From the designers’ perspectives, too I think there’s a level of the collaboration which they weren’t expecting where they can extend the offering and the diversity of the types of designs that they could be doing. From a commercial standpoint, it’s great for designers to understand there’s a whole other market. When you design for all people, you’re creating a better scenario for yourself as a designer, too. It’s super exciting for all involved. It’s a dream realized and it’s just beginning.”
This dream goes beyond Be Brave. “Everybody has a great story about Special Olympics or working in this field and they all want to help, everyone wants to be involved and that to me is incredibly gratifying and also shows that real change is possible,” said Barker. “We’re moving towards trying to make this not a conversation, because the first time it’s a conversation. Essentially, it won’t be — that’s when we’ve reached true inclusion. What we’re aiming for is true inclusion so this happens all the time.”
Special Olympics started in 1968 as a backyard summer camp for people with intellectual disabilities and today, it’s a global movement. Kelli Seely, chief marketing, development and communications officer, Special Olympics International, hopes this collaboration continues to expand globally and into the fashion industry.
Seely said, “This initiative is a direct legacy of our founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She was a pioneer in the worldwide struggle for rights and acceptance for people with intellectual disabilities. The Parsons School of Design and Special Olympics collaboration serves as an example of how Special Olympics athletes, and all individuals with intellectual disabilities, are in many ways the teachers in today’s ever-changing global marketplace, challenging the world to be more inclusive in all aspects of life.”
For Shriver’s granddaughter, Christina Schwarzenegger, Special Olympics Founders Council Member and former Parsons student, this initiative punctuates learning. “You really learn when you choose to step outside of what you know and broaden your perspectives, you can learn something new from others like with ID. We can all learn something from each other and this is another example of when you choose to be inclusive…and learn their understanding their gifts and more inclusive world which is more important than ever.”
In addition, Schwarzenegger said, “It’s changing the way that we look at those intellectual disabilities. Now we can view them as a wealth source of knowledge, expanding our awareness – just showing their importance to society, importance to human connection, learning more about them, learning more about each other but that’s what this whole thing is about. Challenging other stereotypes and showing what each and every one of us, what we’re all capable of.”
That’s something Kosber won’t soon forget. “While creating sportswear, I gained a broader knowledge on kinesthetic anatomy, specifically the body in movement. The process helped me maneuver fabric and silhouette for an active body and helped me create informed design for a dynamic garment. Most importantly, I learnt to design adaptively and inclusively — and to carry on creating fashion that can serve a larger purpose.”