Parent Lisa Bellin Rodriguez spends extra time at the mall to find clothes for her 10-year-old son.
She’s usually on the hunt for a hard-to-find item — pants with an elastic waistband.
Rodriguez’ son Maddox has Down syndrome and needs clothes that are easy to put on and take off.
“Any time I’m in the mall at a kid’s store, I’ll go in to see if there are elastic-waist jeans in his size,” Rodriguez said. “Something that doesn’t look like sweatpants, regardless of if I need them at all.”
So when Rodriguez heard that O’More College of Design students were creating custom outfits for children with Down syndrome, she immediately signed up.
The custom designs will take center stage, along with other student work, at O’More’s annual fashion show this month.
The project — a collaboration between O’More and Gigi’s Playhouse, a national network of Down syndrome achievement centers — requires students to design clothes that are inclusive to different body types. Children from 6 to 11 are involved in the collaboration.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes a wide range of developmental delays and physical disabilities.
Children with Down syndrome have low muscle tone, often resulting in protruding stomachs. Sometimes their arms are too short for standard long-sleeve tops. And with undeveloped fine motor skills, common features like buttons and zippers pose constant challenges. For some children, even fabric texture is a big deal.
Parents say the right clothes can give their children independence to do simple tasks, like dress themselves or go to the bathroom.
Comfort is a recurring theme in the custom outfits. Students have incorporated elastic waistbands and soft, stretchy fabric in their designs.
Fashion design student Ashleigh Cain smooths out a dark blue knit jersey fabric on a table. She’ll use the fabric to create jogger sweatpants, or sweatpants that taper at the ankles, for Maddox.
The finished look will include a denim vest over a red t-shirt — a color scheme inspired by Maddox’s favorite colors. The back of the vest will have room for a detachable cape.
“He’s a modern day prince,” Cain said. “I didn’t want it to be so costume-y. I want him to still be able to wear it to school or to a store.”
Cain typically designs modern casual clothes for women.
“Up until this point, we’ve really just been using the forms and model sizes,” she said.
It’s common for students to design for themselves, said Jamie Atlas, chair of O’More’s fashion program.
But this project requires students to empathize with someone else’s wants and needs, she said.
Personal style also is a big part of the custom designs. Student designers met with children one-on-one to discuss personal style and interests.
Design student Emily James glues flowers on a plastic crown. It’s a finishing touch to a pink gown for 8-year-old Blair Bender.
The satin pink top is embellished with hand-beaded flowers and the bottom flairs out with about 18 layers of pink tulle.
“She was very adamant about pink,” James said.
High interest in the program
O’More College reached out to Gigi’s Playhouse Nashville last year about the collaboration. Families expressed an immediate interest.
“So I reached out to my families on Facebook, and was really kind of going out on the limb to see if there was an interest,” said Janea Rayborn, site manager for Gigi’s Playhouse Nashville. “And by the next morning, all of the 11 slots plus more were filled.”
Lauren Huy was one of those parents. Her son Cooper is 10.
“To be able to have a designer make him an outfit that was still cute and trendy and that was perfect for his body,” Huy said. “My immediate reaction was, ‘This is going to be awesome.’”
“For some reason, I feel the strongest need to make sure he is dressed cute all the time and trendy and stylish because I guess I feel like he’s got enough going against him in society,” Huy said.
“This is showing everyone that hey, they like fashion, they like to dress up,” Rodriguez said.
She added: “And my son is a little bit of a ham.”