Today is a big day. Alleles Design Studio co-founders McCauley Wanner and Ryan Palibroda, along with disability advocate and lifestyle blogger Cacsmy Brutus (also known as Mama Cax), are heading to the White House for the first-ever Design For All Showcase—a celebration of inclusive design, assistive technology, and prosthetics.
Brutus, a Haitian-American whose right leg was amputated due to bone cancer when she was a teenager, is set to model an Alleles prosthetic leg cover in the event’s fashion show. She’s wearing a black culotte jumpsuit with a white-checkered grid that pops thanks to her white Fadilah Alleles cover—a simple style with repeating oval and diamond cutouts reminiscent of the ornamentation seen in Pakistani architecture.
Palibroda orders a taxi and tells the dispatcher he’s travelling with a woman with a disability, but when the car arrives, the front seat is covered in junk and the driver puts up a fuss about making room for Brutus and her walking braces. The cabbie then makes it worse by refusing Palibroda’s request to be dropped off in front of the White House. Disheartening but far from rare, the experience acutely demonstrates the daily challenges faced by someone living with a disability. It could have killed Brutus’s confidence that day, but it didn’t—and Alleles is partly to thank for that. From the moment she strapped on her first Alleles cover—a gold and burgundy Alpine design featuring etched trees and birds—Brutus has felt a fierce sense of pride.
“There’s a big emotional dimension to design,” says Palibroda, recalling the 2016 incident as he sits at a drafting table in the company’s Victoria studio. “Functionally, it’s the same leg with or without a cover, but psychologically, it doesn’t feel the same. The covers help people feel comfortable and confident.”
Since launching in 2013, Alleles has made a huge difference in the lives of thousands of people all over the world. “We’re trying to shift the conversation from disability to design,” Wanner says, adding that the feedback from customers is consistent: the way people interacted with them before they wore a cover versus after is completely different. Rather than looks of pity and intrusive questions, they get compliments on their cool wearable art.
Looking at some 150 plastic covers hanging in neat rows on the studio’s white wall like crayons in a jumbo box, it’s easy to see why. From the sporty Hi-Top that looks like the latest cross-trainer, to the edgy Baller with a geometric skull, to the dainty lace-patterned Victorian, there’s a cover for every style and occasion. Alleles also does custom work; the most memorable pieces include a cover that matched the bodice of a bride’s gown, and one that reflected a Métis man’s Ojibwe heritage. All of the covers are designed and handmade by Palibroda and Wanner.
The businesses started as Wanner’s thesis for her master’s degree in industrial design at the University of Calgary, where she met Palibroda, who was doing his master’s in architecture. Neither of them has a disability, but they were both acutely aware of the lack of aesthetically appealing designs in the medical field. After school, the pair worked directly with amputees to finesse the shape and measurements of the covers to make the fit standardized like shoe sizes. People can now order online by making a few simple selections. “We’re trying to empower our clients and give them a shopping experience like everyone else,” Wanner says. “I can have a glass of wine and binge-shop online—why shouldn’t they get to do that just because they have a prosthetic leg?”
Alleles covers have made appearances at the Paralympics, at fashion shoots, on runways, on TV sets, and at concerts. “Our clients are so accomplished and inspiring,” Wanner says. “We’re just riding their coattails.” But Wanner and Palibroda are not the coattail-riding types. They have big plans for their studio, including designing prosthetic arm covers and clothing. “There’s not that much of a difference between clothing and prosthetics,” Palibroda explains. “It’s all about how something relates to the silhouette of the human body.” So, while prosthetic-wearers will continue to be the company’s raison d’être, Alleles was never intended to be a one-trick pony. “If we’re around because it’s a good story and it’s a novelty, we’ve failed our clients,” Palibroda says. “It only matters if the work is great and the design is beautiful.”