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Interview with Jhonatan Lambert, a visually impaired Belgian participant to "Beyond Seeing"'s preparatory visit

Q: So, the project's aim is to make blind and visually impaired (VI) people feel fashion and design through the other senses. Do you think that's really possible?

A: Yes, from the description I had also understood that they wanted to make fashion and design accessible to blind and VI people. That's why it was very surprising to see that they were hardly mentioned! Professors concentrated more on the condition of VI people, also thanks to some guests (a blind girl who works in the fashion field; a director who made a movie about blind people...). I believe they focused so much on this because they want to know how they can work with blind and VI people.

Q: Do you already know what kind of activities they want to organize to convey fashion through the other senses?

A: Well, we were devided into groups according to our country and had a 30-minute brainstorming on how to convey fashion to VI people. In my group we agreed that the most important sense to VI people is the touch, and that therefore it would be good to put little signs on clothes' labels to give some basic information on the attire (colour, pattern etc.). However, people had many extravagant ideas as well, which I found completely unfeasible... But, then again, it was the first time they did something like that.

Q: So you think that this preparatory visit was a very general kind of event?

A: Yes, very very general. I think that they first wanted to meet VI people to know how they could help them: that's why they organized so many activities with blindfolds, because they realized that VI people's lives are totally different and sometimes harder than sighted people's ones.

Q: Oh, yes, because there were also many sighted participants, right?

A: Yes. In fact, there were mostly sighted participants: 10 Belgians, 5 Germans, 5 French and 5 Swedish. And then there were one or two VI people per country. Given the high number of sighted people, I think that professors wanted to first show them all the difficulties that VI people run into in their daily life, but that their final aim is to achieve something in the fashion field, which is what the project is really about.

Q: To achieve something like what? Something beautiful and superfluous, maybe?

A: I didn't really understand if they aim to create something beautiful or something accessible. There were many crazy ideas: some people even spoke about smells, saying that a certain smell could resemble a certain colour... I found some of them really odd and impossible to carry out. Someone talked about moods as well, saying that you can wear different colours according to your mood... There were many ideas that were just not scientific at all! Very artistic, but definitely not concrete. I expected something precise and punctual, but the actual event was all but that!

Q: You mentioned signs on labels indicating color, pattern etc. Do you think that such information can truly help VI people to know whether the concerned attire actually fits them well?

A: Well, fashion is a very very visual thing, so I don't believe it will ever be possible to make it 100% accessible. However, making it 25% accessible seems already a great stride forward, and I think that signs on labels go exactly in this direction.

Q: What about workshops and group activities? Did you like them? What did you do exactly?

A: We didn't do so many group activities, actually. As I told you, the only group activity we did was the brainstorming, where every country had to discuss what could be done to improve VI people's lives in the field of fashion and design. Another interesting activity consisted in creating a piece of clothing with just tulle and Sellotape... but, once again, it didn't have anything to do with fashion, I think. That's what I found slightly disappointing: that we did many activities that had nothing to do with fashion (for instance, we were blind-folded and had to walk around in the hall).

Q: So, what did you do exactly with Sellotape and tulle? That sounds quite interesting!

A: We were devided into groups according to our country, and the people who could see were blind-folded. The idea was to choose a person from the group and dress him using just Sellotape and tulle, inventing a little story. For instance, one group dressed the person for a wedding, and the result was really beautiful! So it was a free artistic creation, we could say. The fact that sighted and partially sighted people were blind-folded was also very important, because it meant that they had to carry out whatever they had in mind without the aid of sight. I guess that the aim was to show them that working in the fashion field without seeing is very difficult, yet possible: as I said, we also saw a blind girl who works in the fashion field!

Q: So, did you truly have to dress the person?

A: Yes, or at least we tried to! We had only Sellotape, scissors and tulle, and we had to wrap the person in the dress, if we can call it that!

Q: Considering you can still see quite well, how did it feel to be blind-folded, and to realize your ideas without sight?

A: Well, it's worth saying that I see much better during the day than at night: whilst I can walk without a cane during the day, I see nothing but lights when it gets dark. Therefore, I'm also used to go around and do things without seeing much. That's why for me it wasn't so much of a problem when we were blind-folded: at home I never turn on the light, because I know the environment by heart and I don't need to see! What was more complicated for me was to interact with the other participants, as I'm not used to interact with people who can't see, help them to find things etc.

Q: What about the fashion professors?

A: There was four of them (one per country), but each of them mainly worked with his own group: only on the last day they all worked together on the activity with tulle and Sellotape. I'm quite sorry about that, as I think that countries should have been mixed more, but c'est la vie. Anyway, I mostly talked to the Belgian professor.

Q: And how did you find him? Was he open to new ideas related to blindness? Was it easy for him to interact with blind people, or did he seem slightly uncomfortable?

A: I had the impression that he hadn't met many VI people before, because he was quite over-protective towards Selma and me: he worried a lot and wanted to help us as much as possible. Anyway, he was really nice and open, and he had many many interesting ideas, as every true artist should!

Q: So do you envisage that the project is going to yield something interesting, as there are so many promising ideas already?

A: Yes, I think so. That's why I told the professor that he could count on me for the continuation of the project.

Q: One of the project's aims is to improve VI people's integration into society. Do you also believe there is a link between social integration and fashion?

A: Yes, I do. I think it's very important for VI people to know exactly what they are wearing: when I go shopping, for instance, I always need to go with someone, to know what colour it is, what I can match it with, etc. So I think that things like the little signs on labels that I mentioned earlier could really make VI people more independent in their day-to-day life. And something like that can definitely have a positive effect on their social integration: they can go shopping on their own, and they don't run the risk of matching clothes in an odd way! So I think that "fashion" in this project doesn't only refer to the Paris parades with extravagant clothes, but also to the way people get dressed in general.

Q: Another goal of the project is to help VI people to achieve the same rights as sighted ones. Don't you think that goes a bit too far?

A: Yes, it probably does. But, then again, I don't really know what the ultimate goal of the project is: we didn't talk about that at all. As I understand it, the project will be carried forward separately in the four schools, which will probably discuss future steps later on.

Q: Is there anything you want to add?

A: Yes. The visit was really interesting for me, though it was very far from what I expected (I don't mean it negatively though): as I said, it hardly spoke about fashion, and mostly focused on the visual handicap and on how VI people "see" things. However, I believe it was the right thing to do, because it would be impossible to help blind people without really knowing how they work! I don't know how they will carry it forward in the different schools, but I think it can yield interesting results. For instance, I really liked the idea of the little signs on labels and I believe that it can be definitely carried out. The environment was friendly, people were nice and open-minded... So, all in all, a very good experience!