These prosthetic covers marry flair with function.
McCauley Wanner and Ryan Palibroda craft stylish leg and arm covers that people can actually afford through their British Columbia-based Alleles Design Studio, which they launched in 2013. The covers, currently on display in an inclusive design and accessibility exhibition at New York’s Cooper Hewitt museum, began as an effort to usher design and beauty “into an industry that’s very clinical,” Wanner told Moneyish.
“We weren’t designing for insurance companies; we weren’t designing for prosthetists; we weren’t designing for clinicians. We’re designing for amputees,” Wanner said. “So we prioritized style and what people actually would want to wear while they’re getting dressed and going out to hang out with their friends. That’s the stuff we care about.”
About two million people in the US live with limb loss, according to the nonprofit Amputee Coalition and roughly 185,000 amputations occur each year. Primary causes of limb loss include vascular disease (54 percent) and trauma (45 percent), while cancer accounts for less than two percent. A new prosthetic leg can cost between $5,000 and $50,000, per one widely cited estimate.
Knowing what it meant to be “broke artists,” Wanner and Palibroda kept the price point top of mind — asking how much they themselves would be willing to splurge on a new pair of shoes they loved. They zeroed in on the $400 range: pricey, but not prohibitively so. “In medical design, everything is hyperinflated. So a lot of times it’s like, ‘This device is four grand,’” Wanner said. “People don’t have four grand — but they could save up for something that’s $300 to $500.” (The studio keeps prices low by manufacturing everything in-house, Palibroda said.) Most of the covers, which ship worldwide, are reimbursed through insurance; Wanner says an audit of American clients found that 97 percent of the covers were reimbursed.
The couple, who met through their University of Calgary master’s program and have been together about eight years, say they want to do for the prosthetics industry what a previous generation of designers did for the eyeglass industry: While glasses were once viewed through a purely clinical lens, they’re now available in countless styles and price points, worn as statement pieces and baked into wearers’ identities. “It’s a medical device that has now turned into a fashion statement,” Wanner said — an expressive “in-between” alternative to not wearing a cover or having a realistic, flesh-toned cosmetic that makes a prosthesis blend in.
Company president Wanner, 32 and design director Palibroda, 37, are neither amputees nor prosthetic specialists (aka prosthetists) — they’re self-described “fashion junkies” with backgrounds in industrial design and architecture, respectively. Wanner previously worked as a graphic artist and user-experience designer, while Palibroda worked as an artist and architectural designer at a hospital.
The Alleles team models its covers in 3-D on a computer, then fabricates them using various manufacturing machines. The result is a made-to-measure product fashioned from lightweight, durable ABS plastic that attaches to a prosthesis with two polyurethane straps with metal hooks. They say they make constant design adjustments based on feedback from customers.
Wanner and Palibroda, who declined to disclose Alleles’ amount in annual sales, say sales have “quadrupled” over the past year. Their seven-person team sells “a few thousand” covers a year, Wanner said, with the cheapest ones going for $325 Canadian ($248 US) and the most expensive ones costing up to $525 ($401). (Custom artwork, for which there’s currently a waiting list, runs a flat rate of $1,500.)
The Alleles duo, who say a “huge portion” of their friends now are amputees, are intent on changing how others view the community. “What people never really talk about is the general public viewing someone with an amputation or a disability — they’re the ones who need to be educated and they’re the ones who don’t really get how to interact with people,” Palibroda said.
“When you’re talking to someone who has a disability, guess what: They’re just a person,” added Wanner. “You don’t need to highlight the fact that they’re missing (a limb) and they don’t feel like telling you for the 15th time that day that they lost their leg to cancer because you’re curious.”
Angel Giuffria, an actress and disability advocate from Slidell, La., who was born without a left arm, has worn a prosthesis her entire life. And while she has always thought her prosthesis was cool, she said, showcasing it with Alleles covers helped other people recognize that. “Before … when they realized I had one hand or I wore a prosthesis, I’d get a lot of ‘Sorry’ or ‘I’m sorry for asking’ — more pity,” 29-year-old Giuffria, who wears a muscle-operated myoelectric prosthesis, told Moneyish. “(Now) I have people come up to me and say, ‘This is so cool.’”
The ability for amputees to customize their own piece could even help improve functionality outcomes with their prosthesis, Giuffria added. “If a person wants to wear this device because it’s cool and it makes them feel good about themselves,” she said, “then that’s probably going to make them better at using their device, because they’re wearing it more.”
Emery Vanderburgh, a 22-year-old art student at the University of Victoria who had her leg amputated due to the bone cancer osteosarcoma, recalled getting her first Alleles cover, the Imperialist, around 2014. She would go on to own about a dozen of the covers — “one for every outfit, pretty much” — and intern this summer as a content creator at Alleles. The covers have empowered her, she told Moneyish, by showing off her prosthesis and changing people’s perception of her.
“Now the conversation ends up being complimentary towards the cover or this admiration of how I’m just rocking what I’m wearing,” she said. “It looks like a really high-fashion piece.”