Fashion beyond the visual: Meet Angela Wanjiku, revolutionary fashion designer
Shopping for a new outfit or for shoes is a simple task to many of us, but it is an uphill chore for visually impaired persons.
Because of their disability, they are often required to go around with someone when shopping to avoid being taken advantage of by malicious storekeepers and other shoppers, which is often the case when they shop alone.
This is one of the findings Angela Wanjiku, founder of Hisi Studio, realised when she was conducting her final year project at the University of Nairobi (UoN).
Hisi Studio is a Kenyan lifestyle and fashion brand exploring inclusive design, which leverages, rethinks and includes the needs of visually impaired fashion consumers, creating a more holistic sensorial experience.
Wanjiku’s collection known as ONO aims at addressing problems the fashion industry causes for disabled people by ignoring them.
“Fashion as a visual language is difficult to translate for visually impaired persons. It causes frustration and increases their level of dependence. Our aim is to offer a holistic sensorial experience that contributes to non-visual aspects of clothing,” says the 22-year- old fashion design graduate.
Wanjiku adds that few clothing brands cater to people with disabilities because traditionally, fashion has been very narrow in its focus, with little inspirational work done in terms of inclusive design.
“Designing for the disabled has traditionally been ignored by fashion originators. The beauty of my collection is that although my designs are inclusive, you would never know by looking at them. They can be worn by anyone whether you have a disability or not.”
She also ensures that disability must be included in the designer approach from the beginning in line with their goal to promote independent living skills of dressing and shopping for visually impaired persons
Wanjiku also plans to include products for other persons with disabilities, not just the visually impaired. Her gun-holster inspired handbags are designed to worn close to the wearer’s body for safety. They also come with Macramé (art of knotting string in patterns to make decorative articles) detail on the flap to guide the owner/user.
The clothes come with a QR code tags to provide technological assistance to the visually impaired with encoded data of details and care instruction. The tag is read using a scanner on a mobile phone and an audio description generated, meaning one can go out for shopping alone.
Additionally, the outfit’s print, if any, is inspired by braille. The intricate dots move beyond communication to create an aesthetic and captivating visual effect. “Our work is inspired by the belief that the less we see with our eyes the more we see with our hearts. We champion innovation through assistive technology and digital fabrication.”
Wanjiku carried out a pilot project, involving 20 visually impaired persons, between February and March, and they expressed their excitement. She is planning to launch her designs commercially this month, and is already working on the next collection.
The business, located in Thika, is currently under incubation at UON School of Art at Upper Kabete. And since she doesn’t understand sign language, she has enrolled for classes to make her work easier.
“Currently, I am being assisted by teachers from Thika School for the Visually Impaired to carry out all work. To ensure that our product has a print which can be understood by the community, we screen print using braille.”
However, it has not been an easy journey for the past one year because research and development are costly and it take time. The best thing is that she has managed to acquire intellectual property rights for her work.