Vancouver Fashion Week FW 24 Interview with Co-Founder McCauley Wanner of ALLELES Design Studio (Canada)

McCauleyWanner-RyanPalibroda Designers
Alleles Design Studio will be showing their collection on the runway at Vancouver Fashion Week FW 24 on Thursday, April 25th at 5:50 P.M. Purchase tickets HERE!

From the VFW Website -

Since its inception, the ALLELES Design Studio has been focused on creating choice for amputees through the development of fashion-forward prosthetic leg covers. Drawing inspiration from the eyeglass industry, our aim has been to transform medical devices from items people were trying to hide, to something people would choose to represent their distinct personality and style.

Founders, McCauley Wanner and Ryan Palibroda, launched their products online through in 2013. Creating an online store allowed designs to be accessible to amputees worldwide, making it one of the first products in the prosthetic market to be available direct-to-consumer.

With a background of industrial design, art, and architecture, our dream has always been to bring our skill sets into other realms and showcase the importance of design on people's lives. We have spent the last ten years as an R&D studio developing efficient ways of bringing a made-to-order product to life and we are excited that we finally have the opportunity to showcase what the studio can do.

More importantly we are excited for a runway show featuring a bunch of our friends who are representative of the clients that we work with everyday. This collection will explore full head-to-toe looks using the technology and techniques we have developed in house and blur the lines between prosthetics and fashion.

The ALLELES Design Studio has been recognized and showcased worldwide by: Instagram, The White House (Washington, DC), Museum of Man (Paris, France), Kent State Museum of Fashion (Kent, Ohio), Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (New York, NY), The Word Economic Forum (Davos, Switzerland), Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh, PA), Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal (QC), and various other Museums across Canada.


Interview - 

Please share a bit about your journey to founding a company that designs and creates prosthetic covers? What did you do before? What inspired you to address the needs of amputees?

Cofounder Ryan Palibroda and I met at the University of Calgary where we were doing our masters in Industrial Design & Architecture respectively, so were in the same faculty. My research was focused on the power of fashion and self expression, and the benefits of that approach within the medical world. I looked into different medical devices such as hearing aids, walkers, wheelchairs, insulin pouches, catheter bags, and prosthetics. 

After a few months of researching I realized that most of these devices were heavily engineered, but not 'designed' in a way I felt could help provide users the ability to personalize their devices and provide a sense of self. A studio mate at the time had a roommate who wore a prosthetic leg and we were introduced. His name was John-Paul, and he was the first person I talked to about the different options that were available for him to personalize his prosthesis. Needless to say, his experience and our conversation made me realize just how bleak and lacking the options he had available to him really were. 

I decided at that point to focus the rest of my research on prosthetics specifically. I met a few more amputees and prosthetists during this time who were generous enough to share their experience and insights with me. At the end of my project, I ended up coming up with the idea of non-representation prosthetic covers to allow people to interchange the feeling of their device (just as we do with clothing and fashion) back in 2010. 

Upon graduation, Ryan & I began dating and ended up moving to Montreal where we worked in digital marketing and architecture. We were constantly discussing my research project and how we could transform it from an art project into a viable option for people. This research became the basis of ALLELES. 


How did you each learn the skills needed? As this is fairly new territory, did you have to do a lot of research? Did you connect with amputees

We are actually first-to-market for this type of fashion-forward, removable prosthetic cover. So yes, everything we have done is new territory with no precedent to follow. In terms of product development, we are only now coming to the end of that cycle and it has been ten years. We often joke that the sentence that we hope to never hear again is, "well... I've never seen that before." 

In doing this, we realized that it isn't just the product that is new, we have actually had to develop the distribution model, the measuring, the production, the made-to-order ability, and the education around the product (all remotely, which is not typical in the world of medical) in order for it to get adopted within the medical industry and by insurance. 

Amputee themselves have never had an issue adopting the product. We hear almost on a weekly basis even still (especially for new amputees, or about to become amputees) that our covers are the only reason they were okay with going through an amputation because they had an idea of how they could look and feel once they recovered. And though the product isn't for everyone, the people who do love it say that it truly helps them feel more confident in social settings and shifts negative public perceptions. And that is more than we could ever hope for from a piece of plastic. 

What exactly is a prosthetic cover and what is its purpose? How did you create a palette of colors and what inspired the art patterns available?

A lower limb prosthetic cover provides silhouette and offers a layer of protection to a prosthetic leg. Similar to a bike helmet, if someone were to fall on their prosthesis, the hope is that they crack and break their cover rather than their extremely expensive prosthetic knee or leg. The covers also give people the ability to choose how they want their device to look and feel to express what best represents them. The colors have been curated over the years to create a versatile palette as well as ensure the quality of the finish is as strong as possible as various pigments do actually perform and function differently. 


Since there are now only a small handful of companies doing this type of work our biggest goal with the pattern designs was to make sure we covered as wide of a range of aesthetics as possible so that people could find something that would suit them especially when they start applying their color and finish choices. 

What hurdles did you face at the beginning as you created your first prototypes and then launched a business to sell them? 

Without getting into it... let's just say, all of them... we had all of the hurdles haha. To put it into perspective, for the first year we had an 100% warranty rate (we were learning every possible prosthetic set-up and which prosthetic cover shapes would work without having seen the person in real life). After about 3 years we still had about a 30-50% warranty rate, and now 10 years later we have a 2-3% warranty rate. This is perhaps our biggest achievement as a studio that for every 100 covers we sell we have to remake 3 covers. That is pretty damn good for a custom-made product that has so many possible prosthetic set-ups to accommodate. 

We listened to ruthless feedback from prosthetists and amputees, and continued to implement their feedback into the product. The people who did take the time to work with us and provide us this feedback were always so patient because people really did just want the product to work for them and to succeed. It has truly been a decade long R&D project that we are proud to say works for people 97% of the time. 

What can you share about the runway show you are creating for VFW? What will we see on the runway and where will your models come from?

There are a few things that are going to make this show really special. The first being that Ryan and I get to have a creative outlet again to reconnect to our work, our mission, our why, our end users and our friends. As you can tell from the previous answers, coming up with this creative product and bringing it to market has been so unbelievably technical and administrative. So we are just excited to finally get to a point where we have the freedom to create. 

Second is that the models we are featuring are our friends, and some of our oldest clients... many of whom we have only met 'virtually.' Because it is so niche and people live all over the world, there aren't many opportunities for gatherings of this kind. Most of our models also all know each other virtually. but again haven't met each other in real life, so that is going to be very incredible in itself.
Thirdly, with all the work we have done behind the scenes, we have developed so many processes and even our own software that allows us to take user input and create-made-to-order pieces efficiently. We are going to be taking the techniques we developed for creating the covers and apply that to the clothing. We will be using our software, and a detailed questionnaire so that the models end up with pieces that they find flattering as well as colors and details that suit them. 

Building a strong framework allows for the layers of personalization to come from the end-user so we are excited to see how it all manifests on the runway. Of course we have created a basis for the clothing with our own design philosophies and style embedded, but the end result is going to be largely impacted by the information the models gave us, which is very similar to how we make our covers. 

Where can amputees purchase your designs? 

We have hundreds of clinic partners all across Canada, the US, Australia and abroad, so people are able to ask their prosthetists about getting a cover. More often than not, the covers are reimbursed through insurance, but if people do want to order directly through us they can also do that through our website: 

What's next for your brand in 2024 and beyond

Our goal is to continue expanding into more clinics in the USA, while also getting back to working more closely with our end users. We are hoping to expand our product offering (perhaps outside the prosthetic industry) by utilizing the processes we have developed in house, and get back into more of our design background now that this product is flushed out. It is a pivotal moment for the studio and we are grateful to have made it to this point.