Disability no barrier to style, says entrepreneurial university designer


MA Fashion student Garfield Li’s funky yet functional womenswear collection was inspired by a visit to a children’s hospice near Luton. “I met a boy in a wheelchair whose mother had cut the back out of his jacket so it was more comfortable for him to wear,” the 26 year old, originally from Hong Kong, explained. This sparked the young designer’s idea to explore whether he could create a range of cutting-edge fashion specifically tailored for wheelchair users.

“A lot of the clothes designed for disabled people are quite old fashioned and look very medical,” Garfield, who grew up in a small village in West Lancashire after moving to the United Kingdom, said. “I wanted to design a collection that would really appeal to young women, whether disabled or not, but that would also address the specific needs of people with spinal conditions.”

Garfield’s illustrations detail a range of jackets, tops, trousers and dresses in a palette of soft pinks, blues and natural creams with a strong 18th Century Parisian influence. The garments are fluid and loose fitting, to be made in light, slightly stretchy fabrics for ease of movement.

The dresses and tops are embellished with sumptuous embroidery and beading, although the backs of the garments are left plain for comfort when sitting down. One of Garfield’s favourite items is his design for a baby pink knee-length dress with fine shoulder straps, richly embroidered and adorned on the front and sides with tiny crystal beads. “The length of a garment is very important as a dress or skirt will ride up when sitting in a wheelchair,” he explained. “I had to bear that in mind when designing the clothes.”

The two jackets in the collection have the back, middle panel removed, so they are comfortable to wear in a wheelchair and easy to put on and take off without help when sitting down. The young fashionista has even included a medical corset in one of the dresses in his collection. “Corset dresses are very popular at the moment and, as many people with spinal conditions have to wear a medical version, I decided to create a garment that incorporated one within the fabric,” Garfield explained.

The Kingston student’s forward thinking fashion line recently captured the imagination of judges at the WestFocus Bright Ideas competition, which recognises student innovation at universities across London. Garfield’s collection scooped top prize in the market research category for projects most worthy of further exploration with consumers.

The designer was awarded £500 worth of market research with sponsors Marketest. “It’s really exciting to be able to develop my research into this collection even further,” the young designer said. “I’m going to be working with the market research company to design a questionnaire for wheelchair users, their carers and hospital staff. It will help me find out more about the issues disabled people face with clothing on a day-to-day basis so that I can refine and improve my collection.”

Kingston’s MA Fashion course director Andrew Ibi said his students were encouraged to think laterally and apply their design skills to a range of challenges set by industry partners. “Garfield has found a unique way of approaching this project combining focussed design with savvy business acumen”, Mr Ibi said. “His work is testament to the entrepreneurial thread that runs through the course”.

Garfield hopes his illustrations will eventually be turned into garments and make it on to the rails of clothing shops up and down the country.