Larissa Walker is at New York’s Highline Stages for her photo shoot and she’s fiercely channeling her inner Wonder Woman. An athlete who has been active with Special Olympics for over a decade, Walker has excelled at basketball, softball and volleyball. She has played with the Manhattan Wildcats and Manhattan Hornets and is now a certified Special Olympics coach.
It is a day of firsts for Walker, a 50-year-old New Yorker, who was born with an intellectual difference. It’s the first time she has taken part in a professional photo shoot complete with hair, make up and fashion photographer Nigel Barker to capture it all. It’s also the first time she is wearing a uniform that has been designed and created just for her by Parsons School of Design student Xinyi Su. For an extra zing to complete the look for the photo shoot, a black cape is attached to her uniform, “like Batman or Wonder Woman,” says Walker. “I feel so appreciated.”
Fittingly held during New York Fashion Week, the day was a celebration of a unique partnership between Special Olympics and Parsons School of Design. They joined forces to conceptualize, design, and develop an inclusive athletic wear line called Be Brave. This year’s collection launched with a photo shoot of Special Olympics athletes modeling the designs.
“The photo shoot brings it all to life. We’re photographing as we would any major campaign with nothing skipped. I have my full crew here. IMG Endeavor donated all the hair and make-up services. I’m treating the athletes like I would any model, saying ‘do this, change this,’ says Barker who is a Special Olympics Champion Ambassador. “This is what inclusivity is about.”
Working directly with Parsons’ professors, and Barker, the students and athletes collaborated to create the stylish, functional and inclusively designed Be Brave collection that reflects and supports the athletes. “From the very first day when they met with the young designers at Parsons, the athletes talked about their sports, the colors they liked and technical things they needed to have in the clothing,” explains Barker who offered three decades of fashion industry expertise.
As Barker observes it is rare for a designer to work so hands-on with an athlete. “Oftentimes the designer will create based on their own vision. And in this situation, the athletes were saying, ‘This is what I do and how I do it. These are my needs. This is what I have to see in the clothing.’ The initiative is called “Be Brave” and I’ve watched the athletes be incredibly courageous and also warm, kind and loving.”
Stacey Hengsterman, President and CEO of Special Olympics New York, explains that giving the athletes a voice in designing uniforms is profoundly meaningful. “I have 17-year-old son with Downs Syndrome and he cannot do zippers or buttons. It’s elastic only. So, he’s stuck wearing what he’s stuck wearing. Or for someone who has arthritis, that limits your fashion choice,” she says. “Our athletes want to feel good. Getting the chance to have designers listen to what they are looking for and design off that is game changing for the industry.”
Designers like fourth year Parsons student Jessica Tan learned so much from the the athletes. “We had to be mindful of things like closures—making sure that they are accessible—whether it be using a larger zipper or magnets or having garments that don’t have any closures so that they can pull over their head,” says Tan. Additionally, for athletes who have a tactile sensitivity, the designers needed to be mindful about fabrics and feel.
As meaningful as it was for the athletes to really be heard, it was truly impactful for the designers. “This experience has shifted my mindset and approach toward design more than anything else,” shares Tan who is committed to taking a more human-centered approach to design. “I am trying to be more conscious about how my work contributes to the environmental impact and how it can be more inclusive to involve more people,” she says. “At the end of the day fashion, just like sport, is a universal language that transcends many barriers. The ability to make people feel confident and empowered is so important to me.”
For many of the six million athletes around the globe who participate in the Special Olympics the regular training and competition truly enhances their life in myriad ways. “It’s very isolating for people with intellectual differences. Friends and opportunities don’t come as easily,” says Hengsterman whose son is a Special Olympics athlete. “In addition to health and wellness, it has given my son tremendous confidence.”
A few weeks ago, when Hengsterman was traveling, she called home and asked her son about practice. “He said, ‘mom, I ran five laps without stopping. I never thought I could do that.’ And then he added, ‘Special Olympics changed my life.”
Alfred Ha, a 35-year-old athlete who has ten gold medals and has been with Special Olympics New York for 18 years, playing Volleyball and Softball. In between modeling his uniform, he had an opportunity to reflect on why the Special Olympics and the Be Brave campaign was so important to him and the athletes. “I can play sports I never had the chance to play before. And it doesn’t matter how diverse or what race you are,” says Ha. “Every athlete can join and enjoy.”