Prosthetics as fashion: designers transform prosthetic leg covers into wearable art

McCauley Wanner and Ryan Palibroda’s design studio, Alleles, began as an unorthodox college thesis project. It is now a premier boutique where amputees can be fitted for fashionable arm and leg covers that make their prosthetic limbs stylish and eye-catching. These designers hope their fashions will help reduce the stigma that comes with prosthetics.

Typically, prosthetic limbs are designed to be skin-toned, to blend in and be invisible. Ironically, the bold, attention-grabbing covers from the Alleles team allow people to see more of the person behind the disability. Freethink spoke to the design duo to understand the motivation behind their prosthetic designs. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: How would you describe your work to someone who had never seen it?

McCauley: We make prosthetic covers for amputees. It’s like interchangeable iPhone cases for iPhones. It’s accessorizing, like wearing a funky pair of shoes. 

Ryan: Because we do so many different designs and color combinations, sometimes you look at it and you’re like, “This is insane.” Then you look at it when someone’s wearing it and it just looks normal.

Freethink: What motivated you to design limb covers for amputees? 

McCauley: I’m passionate about fashion. Everyone always says it’s frivolous. Everyone always says it’s shallow, it’s superficial. I find that extraordinarily (short-sighted). People expressing themselves and having a sense of identity is not something that’s shallow.

So I asked, “How do I use fashion and explain that concept?” It started as a thesis project at the University of Calgary. I looked into medical design for devices like walkers, canes, and hearing aids. The more I learned about the amputee community and the lack of options — it just captivated me, and I ended up focusing in that area.

Freethink: Did you encounter any resistance? 

McCauley: When I was doing my thesis in 2010, I was told, “You are never going to be able to get ethics approval (by the ethics board at my school) to talk to people about pairing something as frivolous as fashion with something as sensitive as disabilities.” 

I ended up getting ethics approval eventually. My professor couldn’t believe it got through. It’s just one of those things (pairing fashion with disabilities) where people don’t do it. They don’t talk about it. It was taboo.

Freethink: Wait, what?! Your professors thought it was improper to pair fashion and disabilities? 

McCauley: The thing that people don’t realize now is this is still extraordinarily new. Disability design is only now starting to get publicized and entering the mainstream. 

When we first started, we had one of our pieces on a runway with another fashion designer. That was the first time an amputee was on the runway since Alexander McQueen in 1998. That’s a substantial 20-year gap. Even in the last two years, we’re starting to see a shift.

Freethink: How did your thesis project grow into a design company? 

Ryan: What we’d seen is everyone has all these amazing concepts, and then people want them, and they can’t find them. It really took us a couple of years even to figure out a way where people could actually get the limb covers. How do we make this real? How do we make this even the beginning of a business? It was a crazy couple of years.

Freethink: What have you learned about people with disabilities? 

McCauley: The more people I talked to, the more I heard, “You can do that?” I always thought that people with a prosthetic deserve options for self-expression, too. It really wasn’t anything I needed to learn. I just thought it was crazy that people were withheld that option for so long that they didn’t even believe in it either.

This is a huge area that many designers don’t even see is right in front of them. We just want to bring our best design forward so that people have the option like everyone else.

Ryan: The problem with 90% of medical design is that they don’t understand that people have a life outside the clinic. When we first got into this industry, people just looked at functionality: “As soon as you gave someone a prosthetic, they become an athlete.” It’s almost like a bad joke.

When you talk to amputees, it’s like “Oh, here comes the amputee story. They’re going to do a news piece on me. They’re going to show me running on a track.” Whereas with us, our clients are accountants, they’re lawyers, they’re real estate agents. They’re people that love fashion. They’re people that hate fashion. They’re people that hate sports. They’re people that like sports. It doesn’t matter. Everyone has all these interests.

Freethink: How do you think that your work impacts their life outside the clinic?

McCauley: In the beginning, amputees would say, “It is so crazy. Ever since I got my cover, interactions on the street have completely changed.” All of a sudden strangers stopped making them relive the trauma by asking personal questions like “What happened to you?” Now strangers say, “Wow that’s really cool. Looks great with your jacket.” And they move on. It completely changes the social interaction and how people approach a person with a disability.

Ryan: We could make things all day that we think are beautiful. But at the end of the day if it doesn’t help change some of the stigmas that are involved with a disability, it’s a total failure.

Freethink: How did you know you were on the right path? That you were making an impact?

McCauley: We sit in our studio completely isolated making all these products. We still make everything in-house. So we touch and see every single product that leaves the door. Sometimes, you forget that there are people on the other end. All of a sudden, an order will come in, you’ll send it out, and forget about it.

Then we started getting emails from people saying, “You’ve changed my life. I’ve been an amputee for 25 years this was the first time I’ve ever worn shorts.” Or, “I feel feminine for the first time.” Or, “My son just got a cover, and he hasn’t taken his shorts off, he’s only 6 years old.” 

It just hit us like a huge brick. Holy shit. We didn’t know how it impacted people’s lives until they told us. It gives them this sense of relief and hope. Just because they lose their limb doesn’t mean they have to lose who they are. We feel so lucky that that was the response.

All of a sudden strangers stopped making amputees relive the trauma by asking personal questions like, “What happened to you?” Now strangers say, “Wow that’s really cool. Looks great with your jacket.”

Freethink: What’s next? What’s the future for designer prosthetics and Allele?

Ryan: There’s an overwhelming amount of design for this kind of realm that people are just waiting for (designers) to do something about. The goal of the studio is to completely blur the line between fashion design and medical — where medical devices are no longer looked at like a technical thing.

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