33-YEAR OLD SPECIAL OLYMPICS ATHLETE DANIEL FLETCHER IN DESIGN BY PARSONS SCHOOL OF DESIGN STUDENT WEIJING XIAO
“As designers in this over-consumption, over-production world, we are constantly thinking if what we’re doing is meaningful. What is my clothing contributing to the rest of the world? In this circumstance, I realized you can actually do something that moves people and makes people feel confident.”
— Weijing Xiao
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NIGEL BARKER
In January of 2020, a new course was introduced into the Parsons School of Design curriculum in partnership with Special Olympics. It was initiated through a connection with Special Olympics board member and fashion model Natalia Vodianova, and offered students the opportunity to create designs for Special Olympics athletes. Taking a collaborative approach, students and athletes worked to conceptualize, design, and create figure skating uniforms. The mission was to amplify the voice of Special Olympics across the world of sport, fashion, and education, and generate new possibilities for inclusion and social justice.
Proving so successful in its first year, the course was offered again in January of 2021. For this semester, students were given the assignment to design both tennis and track & field uniforms for the athletes. Celebrated fashion photographer and Special Olympics Champion Ambassador, Nigel Barker, served as a mentor throughout the design process.
16-YEAR OLD SPECIAL OLYMPICS ATHLETE JANISSA LLOYD
“The thing that really struck me when I was photographing the athletes was their unabashed confidence on set. I think this is because of Special Olympics and the training they have received. They are athletes who understand pressure. Off set they may have been nervous, but on set they were champions. They took risks. They rose to the challenge. Even working with professional models that’s not always the case and it was astounding to behold.” — Nigel Barker
Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, providing year-round training and activities to more than 6 million athletes and Unified Partners (those without disabilities) in more than 190 countries around the globe. In addition to the Special Olympics World Games, which alternate between summer and winter games every four years, Special Olympics competitions are held every day, adding up to more than 100,000 events a year.
Special Olympics uses the power of sport as a catalyst for change for people with intellectual disabilities to develop physical fitness, instill leadership skills, provide access to inclusive education and healthcare, demonstrate courage, build confidence, experience joy, and create friendships on and off the playing field.
SPECIAL OLYMPICS ATHLETE AND COACH LARISSA WALKER IN DESIGNS BY PARSONS STUDENT XINYI SU
During NYFW in September, Barker worked again with the these students and athletes to kick off the launch of a new Special Olympics initiative called BE BRAVE. He photographed four Special Olympics New York athletes – Daniel Fletcher, Alfred Ha, Larissa Walker, and Janissa Lloyd – modeling the uniforms designed by Parsons students Jessica Tan, Weijing Xiao, and Xinyi Su, along with a line of BE BRAVE swag. The photo shoot was streamed live on @NYFW. STYLE of SPORT was there on set, and was given the opportunity to talk to all the players involved in the making of this campaign.
The BE BRAVE collaboration was tailor made for fashion photographer and TV personality, Barker, well-known from such competition shows as America’s Next Top Model and The Face. He told STYLE of SPORT, “The BE BRAVE initiative brought everything I do to the table. Working with these young designers, to help push them along, make suggestions, and really just encourage their creative process was incredibly rewarding. To then actually produce the designs, see them on the athletes, and photograph them with the designers there on the sidelines was just extraordinary.”
35-YEAR OLD SPECIAL OLYMPICS ATHLETE ALFRED HA IN DESIGNS BY PARSON’S STUDENT JESSICA TAN
“I think the most important thing is understanding everyone is looking for a connection. The athletes I worked with were incredible individuals and I feel the designs were successful because it really was a collaboration between us. Taking this human-centered design approach, and really focusing on something for which there is a need, was one the most fulfilling experiences for me as designer.” — Jessica Tan
The phrase “Be Brave” comes from the Special Olympics oath, declared by Special Olympics founder Eunice Shriver when she opened the first World Games in 1968 at Soldiers’ field in Chicago. Quoting the gladiators of ancient Rome, she said, “Let me win, but if I can’t win let me be brave in the attempt”.
Adds Stacey Hengsterman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Special Olympics New York, “BE BRAVE is not just about our athletes being brave. They are brave. It’s really sending that message out to everyone else. Be brave to talk to me. Be brave to get to know me. Be brave to be my friend. It’s telling everybody it’s time to be more brave.”
JANISSA, LARRISSA, ALFRED… THEY ALL WORE IT BEST!
“As soon as she came in I saw Janissa had this lively personality. There was something so fun and youthful about her, I said that’s who’s going to wear this tulle skirt! She put it on with the sweatshirt and we thought it would be fun to crop it to create a different look. Alfred came in with a cool laid back alternative vibe. Tying an extra sweatshirt around his waist with skinny pants and high tops felt so perfect for him.” — Stylist Jasmine Caccamo
Special Olympics has used sport to amplify their message of inclusion, and the BE BRAVE initiative brings fashion into the mix. Kathleen Shriver, one of Eunice’s grandchildren who serves on the Founders Council at Special Olympics, says, “My grandmother would have been so excited to see fashion take on the same mission as sport. She used the playing field as a vehicle for change, but she wanted it to lead to fashion, lead to the arts, and lead to anything that would bring people with intellectual disabilities into the conversation.”
The Founders Council is comprised of six of Eunice’s grandkids, carrying on the legacy of their grandmother, and bringing the movement into their generation with a host of new initiatives. “Sometimes people think this movement is so sweet”, continues Shriver, “but my grandmother was quoting the gladiators with that oath. It’s not sweet. This is a really a baddass movement of people who fought everything in society to be a part of our community on the playing field, and now they’re fighting like gladiators in the fashion industry. That’s bravery!”
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