Gary Markle with two models.

Gary Markle is dreaming up clothing for Nova Scotia’s aging demographic.

As he designs jackets people of a certain age can easily shrug into, and sleeves that old folks won’t drag through the butter, the 54-year-old is realizing he’s designing clothing for his own future.

“This all really began probably about seven years ago,” Markle said. “I’m sure I didn’t look that much different than I do now. But I was delusional (about being) hale and hearty.”

Since then, he’s had wrist and foot troubles, and has noticed he has more trouble with buttons lately, making once abstract concepts about slowly deteriorating health much easier to grasp.

“The idea was to not just make things that allow people mobility, but to do it in a beautiful way,” Markle said.

The whole trick of the thing is that function should bow to aesthetic to save garments from looking like medical devices, he said.

“What kind of trip hazard would you be willing to suffer for fashion,” Markle quips during a chat over coffee at a café about a block from NSCAD University’s Fountain Campus.

Dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans and a thick Lopi sweater bearing a Saalish design, Markle describes how his father passed away suddenly in 2008, making him his mother’s primary caregiver.

“She was just diagnosed a year before with dementia, with Alzheimer’s,” he said. “But she obviously had been suffering for a while with Alzheimer’s. It’s often you know something’s up with a person, but you don’t know what. And so by the time you start to realize they’re putting the newspaper in the refrigerator, you’re going, that’s happening a little too frequently.”

Markle started designing clothing for people with dementia with his mother in mind.

“This was a very sudden thing thrust upon me, and also a very sudden thing for her,” he said. “In that relationship, we started to co-design things. Within that activity, it wasn’t just me being always the care provider. There was a place in design where we were collaborating.”

With dementia, certain parts of the brain and consciousness remain intact, while others don’t appear to function, he said.

“They may put the underwear over their pants, but when it comes time to discuss what they would like to be wearing as a garment and creating it, they have complete agency,” Markle said. “My mom was able to describe what she wanted and the adjustments she needed to any prototype. So we ended up with a really beautiful prototype of a housecoat, and that’s sort of what spawned this research.”

After designing a couple of outfits for people with dementia, Markle made contact with a couple that run a clothing boutique called luvly in Lunenburg. In that picturesque seaside town about an hour’s drive from Halifax, the clothing designer started talking with a group of well-educated seniors striving to live independently for as long as possible.

“Design can be a really great way to problem-solve,” said Markle, assistant professor and craft division chair at NSCAD. It can help keep people living at home longer, “and often very much happier. They win by being in their surroundings and not having to go to a nursing home.”

From the client list of an alterations shop affiliated with luvly in Lunenburg, he was able to distill a group of seniors “independent of mind and spirit” who were open to working on clothing design.

“What we found out … was these people are having trouble dressing themselves,” he said. “So they have to phone their daughter-in-law to go, ‘I’m stuck and I can’t get my pants up.’ So it’s not even that they’re worried about falling down the stairs. Because once they’ve got the clothing on, they’re OK. It’s actually way more simple things like, ‘I can’t get my bra on,’ or ‘I can’t zip up my parka.’”

He compared those types of problems to a child who is proud to figure out how to tie their shoes.

“When we allow people that agency for longer, we give them that sense of wellbeing that actually can help diseases slow down,” Markle said. “When we feel good, we feel younger.”

Along with a couple of researchers, Markle collaborated with two men and four women to design a whole collection of clothing for seniors.

“Then we just kept refining those garments.”

Sailor pants with a button-up panel on the front didn’t work for one of the men. “He just felt ridiculous.”

That look might work for a scrawny, 20-something hipster in Vancouver, Markle said. “If you’re 70 years old living in Lunenburg and you’re going to the Legion for a beer, it looks maybe a little bit too much like, ‘So where’s your diaper?’ And that wasn’t what we wanted.”

One woman with a frozen shoulder wanted a light denim jacket that she could slip on easily without her husband’s help. “She could just sort of wiggle into it, do a little shimmy, and it would settle.”

Markle staged a show of the work, dubbed Worn Well, in October 2015 at a Lunenburg boutique. While some of the models were initially reluctant, they all participated in the end.

“You could see the joy,” he said of the seniors who sported about ten of the pieces.

While Markle would like to see the project commercialized, he doesn’t think that’s his shtick. “If somebody wanted to take it on as a business, it’s ready to roll,” Markle said.

He left the clothing with his models and followed up with them a year later to see if they still like the prototypes.

“Did they keep wearing it? How is it wearing if they are? Why did they stop wearing it? A year later, we got feedback from every single one of them. Some were like, ‘Yeah, I’m wearing this constantly.’ Some were like, ‘I love it, but it just was not the right fabric or colour.’”

From there he built another whole set of refined prototypes that will remain as part of NSCAD’s collection.

“Those ones will be preserved, but they can be lent out for research,” he said. “We have the paper patterns, we have some cost analysis … so we know that it is viable.”

Now Markle is working with a medical student who proposed a research in motion project re-imagining the hospital gown.

“They don’t work for anyone,” he said. “They’re biased toward the medical field, and that’s historically where they came from. They haven’t been questioned. Now we’re in a time of patient-centred medicine. So now is the time to take a look at it.”

Over four days this past fall, Markle sat down with a group of arts and med students to talk fasteners for the gowns that tend to bare a patient’s backside unless they sport one back-to-front and another the proper way. But that requires double the laundry, a needless expense for the hospital. They tried to figure out a way to affect the same coverage with the equivalent of one and a half garments.

“How do make something that’s universally useful?” he said. “We came up with innovative wrap-around things and flap-appointed things, almost like the fly on boxer briefs, but for the upper body.”

Self-gripping silicone fasteners, he said, might be the way to go with Johnnie shirts.

“Did you ever go to Swiss Chalet and you get your napkin (with a knife and fork bound up) in a little ring of paper that has this adhesive quality?” Markle said. “It doesn’t stick to anything else but itself. That’s sort of what spawned this thinking.”

While the concept needs more refining, a hospital gown should offer the wearer modesty, adaptability and a closure that doesn’t even exist yet, he said. “It basically looks like a very nice hospital gown, just with some very good adaptations.”

The gowns still need to go through several filters, including burn tests and investigations to determine if they spread disease, Markle said. “I’m happy to get the ball rolling, but I’m a fashion designer.”

Markle’s mother is now living in a nursing home. But he’s still thinking of designing clothes that would suit her situation.

“It makes me feel guilt-ridden that I’m so preoccupied with all this other work that I’m not able to sometimes just go, ‘What does she need now for the reality she’s in?’” he said.

“She’s dressed adequately,” Markle said, noting Northern Reflections sells garments that work well for his mom and stand up well through the severe washing that happens in an institutional environment.

“My mom is past probably caring, other than (about) her comfort maybe — that she’s not having abrasion issues,” he said.

“But it’s more for us, the people who take care of her on a daily basis, for me as her family, for the other family coming in and witnessing, that these people are looking cared-for and loved.”

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  1. While I applaud Mr. Markle for creating accessible clothing for people with muscle, balance or flexibility issues, I take exception to description “Designing for Seniors”. While his inspiration may have been his aging parents, the description is ageist.

    The percentage of individuals over the age of 65 who might need this sort of accessible clothing is quite small and when they do need this sort of clothing, it may be for a very limited period of time. Last time I checked less than 7% of the population over the age of 65 was living in assisted living or retirement communities and this percentage seems to have remained constant for a number of years.

    However, there are others who are not seniors, who could also benefit from Mr. Markle’s clothing because they do have muscle, flexibility or balance issues occasioned by diseases, accidents or genetics. Defining the need for accessible clothing and spaces and the need for supportive housing in terms of age rather than ability discriminates against those who are not seniors, but who need some of the services that we provide to seniors.

    It is time to start lumping all adults in one category. To the extent that distinctions need to be made within that group to make adults able to participate in the larger society, those distinctions should be made on the basis of ability and need.