Change Agents: Claudia Poh of Werable On Making Fashion Inclusive
Claudia Poh realised early on as a fashion design student that “it wasn’t enough for clothes to just look good, they had to inspire confidence too”.
The 25-year-old was in her third year at the Parsons School of Design in New York City in 2017, and one of the class projects required students to work in groups to design for a client who was diagnosed with ALS, a neurological disease affecting the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement. “We designed a coat she could wear independently even as she experienced paralysis in her arms,” Poh explains.
There was a public presentation and the client shared how she can now go to work and leave work without having to turn to someone to ask for help to put on her coat. Poh recalls, “I’ve never seen the clothes I made actually impact someone’s life the way it did. It was a feeling I could never forget.”
She couldn’t stop thinking about the design challenges that popped up and the wardrobe essentials they had encountered during the project. So she decided to take on the challenge in her final-year thesis, where she co-founded Cair Collective with her friend and schoolmate Amy Yu Chen, to design a collection that could be worn hands-free. “It prompted me to dig deeper into why we create the things that we do and the kind of impact I wanted to make with the people around me.”
When Poh returned to Singapore, she decided to expand the scope of her research to scale for impact as there are still many other widely experienced challenges that have gone unaddressed. This laid the firm foundation for Werable, her own scalable adaptive apparel brand which is anchored on easy-to-wear styles, thoughtfully designed for life.
Werable—a portmanteau of the words “we are able”—“unifies our two central ideas, where our clothes are designed for their wearability as well as their ability to give people a sense of agency and empowerment”, shares Poh, who set herself the challenge of exploring designs that go beyond this niche market. While adaptive basics are currently available, fitted clothes that also offer ease of wear, particularly for people who experience reduced mobility, are hard to find.
“I’ve never seen the clothes I made actually impact someone’s life. It was a feeling I could never forget.”— Claudia Poh
Poh shares an example, “People who have undergone bypasses, mastectomies, and even those who have fractured an arm, quickly realise that their existing wardrobes prove to be a challenge to don. Unless you have incredibly stretchy knits, the next best alternative would be to opt for a few sizes up.” To tackle this challenge, she deconstructs conventionally woven pieces and introduces sectioned ribbed knits in the areas that require more stretch. This helps ease any tension and also allows for greater flexibility.
Werable also seeks to restore dignity. Poh shares, “People don’t like to be singled out as needing special clothes, or help to get dressed. As we innovate easier ways of dressing, we challenge ourselves to innovate chic and unique styles as a means of reshaping systemic biases.”
The label currently has 26 prototypes, with a variety of shirts and trousers made in response to the challenge statements submitted by the patients and their caregivers at the Stroke Support Station, which supports post-stroke rehabilitation needs. “The first prototype was a short‑sleeved top with thin invisible zippers running along the entire side seam. This came about when a few of the caregivers we interviewed shared that it was especially challenging to get their care receiver’s arms through the sleeves of a T-shirt. The zipper was thin enough to be unnoticeable and it eliminated the need to lift the wearer’s arms.”
And as she continues to work more closely with the community, Poh finds that the designs have to evolve with the wearer. “Just as she recovers from a stroke, the clothes should retain features that also empower independence and become a source of encouragement, especially when she gradually regains her mobility and can wear them by herself. It’s our mission to inspire confidence through easy-to-wear apparel.”
From drafting the patterns to sewing, Poh does most of the work herself at the co-working studio The Cocoon Space at Design Orchard. She takes at least three weeks to churn out four to five iterations, testing both function and aesthetics. Next year, she hopes to launch a three-piece ready-to-wear collection: an arm sling, an assisted-dressing T-shirt, and a shirt fastened using pacemaker-friendly magnetic solutions. She is currently working on the prototype for the latter to help simplify dressing routines for those who find buttons a challenge to fasten.
“As the geriatric population grows, it’s only a matter of time before inclusive fashion makes its way into major retailers and brands. When that happens, adaptive fashion will be made more accessible and affordable.”
- PhotographyDarren Gabriel Leow
- Art DirectionMatilda Au
- HairBenedict Choo
- Make-UpBenedict Choo
- Photographer's AssistantDaryl Eng Jun
- VideographyDaryl Eng Jun