McCauley Wanner, 31 and Ryan Palibroda, 36, believe their business – which has seen explosive growth over the last year and a half – proves the concept of “design for disability” is an idea whose time has come.
Their Victoria, B.C.-based company, Alleles, makes decorative plastic covers for prosthetic legs in bold colours and intricate patterns that could almost pass for a sleeve tattoo. They’re eminently Instagrammable.
Instagram thinks so too. The social-media giant recently featured Alleles on their own home feed and in their Instagram stories, providing a huge boost to the brand.
“The only reason our business exists is Instagram,” Wanner said.
Until recently, design of prosthetics was exclusively focused on making pieces functional and lifelike, not beautiful or stylish, Wanner explained. Early on in the business, there was “push back” both from amputees and people in the prosthetics industry who considered prioritizing design and fashion to be “frivolous,” she said.
Alleles does much of their marketing through ambassadors: social-media mavens who model the covers on Instagram in exchange for free product. Some people call themselves ambassadors even though they have no formal relationship with the company, Wanner said – they just love their covers that much.
One official ambassador is University of Victoria fine arts student Emery Vanderburgh, 21. She lost her leg to cancer at 17. She said her first prosthetic cover helped her “connect with this new look and new chapter.”
During her first few months as an amputee, before she had the cover, people often came up to her asking how she lost her leg.
“Any kind of approach had this negative connotation,” she said. But after she got the cover, “The conversation completely changed, to complimenting me and admiring this artistic piece that exemplified my personality.” “It allowed people to feel comfortable talking to me.” She had Alleles design a custom cover using the aesthetic of Irish artist Louis Le Brocquy as inspiration. The design also pays tribute to her love of cats. “Honestly, I’ve never met more original thinkers. They recognized that prosthetics had only really been viewed as a clinical, medical device and that this perception doesn’t encourage people to feel proud of their uniqueness,” Vanderburgh said.
Alleles has a new line of covers for arm prosthetics in the works, and they’re currently dreaming up other ways to integrate fashion into the lives of people with disabilities – maybe clothing, or even things at a larger scale, using Palibroda’s expertise as a trained architect. “There are not a lot of people designing well for disability,” he said. “It’s really clinical and about engineering (still). It’s not enough anymore to design just for necessity.”