Claudia Poh gets fashion. More importantly, however, is her innate understanding of how clothing should make us feel: “Clothes are an extension of all the things we want to do in our lives.” This much was clear when we first met the 26-year-old designer of adaptive fashion label, Werable, in January last year. As the launch of her debut collection approaches, her grasp on clothes being an extension of one’s life becomes even more apparent.
Fresh off the win of the Vogue Singapore x TaFF Innovation Prize—a collaboration with the Textile and Fashion Federation, Singapore that aims to unearth Asian entrepreneurial excellence—last October, Poh has set out to work on a six-piece collection which will be unveiled next week. Here, in an exclusive interview, she delves into what we can expect from the line-up, shifting the adaptive design conversation away from necessity and melding the worlds of adaptive wear and luxury fashion.
Tell us about your first memories of fashion.
When I was seven years old, my mother got me a dress for my doll. To her horror, I cut it in half. She got very mad at me and told me that I needed to take care of my things and lamented that it was a waste of such a precious gift. It took me years to properly articulate myself that I wanted to alter the dress into a top and a skirt. From an early age, having options with clothing meant a great deal to me. Different articles of clothing exist to help us thrive in different climates and functions. They are an extension of all the things we want to do in our lives.
Why did you pursue your degree at Parsons?
I wanted to learn and experience as much as I possibly could. At 16, I knew that the only way I would achieve my dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur was to challenge myself in a new environment and country. I followed my gut, and was granted the opportunity to attend both Parsons Paris and Parsons New York. It was at Parsons that I learned novel ways that fashion could be used to serve people, and developed my way of helping the community.
How did the idea for Werable come about?
In my third year at Parsons, a friend of mine asked me to hack and alter her existing clothes. New York winters are harsh, and most require a thick coat to stay warm—which you often needed to put on and take off as you travel in and out of buildings. As she experiences paralysis in her arms, dressing was impossible for her without assistance and limited her freedom. Excited by the prospect, I co-created with my friends and community to design a coat that she could put on independently. After this experience, all other fashion ventures seemed meaningless. I began to explore how adaptive solutions could not only help people with disabilities but people who value easy-to-wear fashion.
“Why can’t adaptive fashion be defined as sleek, feminine or sexy?”
How have things changed since your initial ideation to now?
This journey helped me to understand that what the market desires from adaptive fashion—it goes beyond simply independence and ease of wear. People don’t like to be singled out as needing help in getting dressed. With this insight, we have developed a six-look collection that challenges the current adaptive market. What does it mean to be inclusive, and why can’t adaptive fashion be defined as sleek, feminine or sexy?
What would you say have been some of the biggest challenges going into this?
From the perspective of a designer, it’s hard to tackle iterative problems that come with longevity. It’s not easily solved with one product and calls for reiteration. This can be resource heavy and varies depending on our range of motion or dexterity. The market is underserved. There is a lack of infrastructure and resources. We’re having to build this infrastructure from scratch, engaging partnerships and also talent.
And what have been some of the biggest successes?
Community engagement is an essential part of what we do. Seeing people actively respond to our open calls for models and occupational therapists gives me more confidence that we’re on the right path. It’s also very exciting to engage with the leadership at Stroke Support Station. We started from the ground up with our research alongside social workers and occupational therapists. I’m thankful for the network we have grown and the culture of care we have nurtured.
One thing you brought up in conversation was how it was hard to meld the worlds of luxury, high-end fashion and adaptive wear. Why do you think that is?
My decision to pursue high-end fashion with Werable stemmed from the challenges I faced with the adoption rates of our early prototypes. I learned that even if we designed a functional walker, people opted for umbrellas as walking sticks instead. To us, being accessible meant disrupting the adaptive market with designs that help people overcome social stigmas. High-end and luxury fashion may seem contradictory for an inclusive brand, but it’s a necessary step forward to champion a spirit of acceptance. It opens the door for us to challenge stereotypes within communities that include ageing and people with disabilities.
“High-end and luxury fashion may seem contradictory for an inclusive brand, but it’s a necessary step forward to champion a spirit of acceptance.”
How do you hope to challenge this?
We hope to optimise more “umbrellas” into fully functional “walkers”. We embed adaptive functions into transformable pieces. An example of this would be our transformable bolero. At first glance, it is a cropped jacket with long voluminous sleeves. It doubles as a functional arm sling with a hook and loop fastener.
Tell us about your first full collection in detail. What was your vision for it and what can one expect?
We’ve created a category of clothing, Easy-To-Wear, with the support of Design Singapore Council as part of the Good Design Research Initiative as well as our parent company, Potato Productions. Easy-To-Wear is a collection that optimises for shifts in our range of motion and dexterity. Buttons become difficult to fasten or just maybe we can’t reach for that zipper on our backs like we used to. Surely, that shouldn’t stop us from wearing what we love to wear. For example, we’ve fashioned a wrap shirt with two magnetic hooks at the side of the waist. You will be able to fasten your shirt with one hand and there will be no need to align magnets or buttons.
We provide ease in the form of added stretch in typically woven garments. Lightweight ribbed knit panels were designed into the back and the cuff of these pieces.In our conversations with occupational therapists, we’ve also developed a pair of catheter-friendly pants. We’ve introduced a hidden pocket to conveniently tuck away catheters. This frees up the use of our hands and the hidden tube prevents accidental dislodgement. The zippers are also equipped with rings that serve as easy-grip zipper pulls.
What are your long-term goals for Werable?
My intention is for Werable to be the go-to for easy-to-wear fashion globally. There’s a gap in the luxury adaptive market and I would like for us to be the pioneers.
What were some of your biggest lessons from your Vogue Innovation Prize experience?
Identifying Werable’s signature was the key takeaway from Vogue Innovation Prize. With Norman’s help, I realised it was important to first develop what we would like to be known for and to be consistent with our storytelling.
And what’s next for you?
Select styles are available for sale on Werable’s website and the remaining styles will be open for pre-orders. The collection will be exhibited at National Design Centre from 15 June to 15 July, where visitors can try them on in person.
Learn more about Werable’s Easy-To-Wear line
Photography Zantz Han
Styling Jasmine Ashvinkumar
Hair Marc Teng using Ouai at Sephora.sg
Make-up Lai Wee Ming using Chanel Beauty
Photographer’s assistant Joel Fong
Stylist’s assistant Jiajia Tan
Models Ping Sie and Derong/ Platinum Angel Models