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Visually Impaired Fashion Designer who aspires to make art and fashion more accessible to the blind

Kingston University fashion graduate, Bianca Von Stempel in conversation with Katie Turner
Describing her fashion collection ‘Tactility,’ showcased at this year’s London Fashion Week, and how it was inspired by her visual impairment, Bianca says, “What you miss out on, you reinvent.”  She says that she experiences the world as, “fragmented and at a distance,” so that an object becomes something different to her compared to how a sighted person might see it and that she decided to use this idea as the inspiration for her collection.
Recreating how her vision literally is in the look and feel of the garments for ‘Tactility,’ Bianca uses blurred and mottled colours as her colour palette. The embroidery patterns on the garments also mimic the way in which Bianca’s eyes move as a result of the Nystagmus, which causes a continuous, uncontrolled to and fro movement of the eyes. When she came across a quote by Helen Keller (“the only thing worse than blindness is having sight but not vision”), this acted as the glue to the collection, helping to bring the whole concept together. Bianca recreated the letters from this quote in a braille design which was then used as the design for parts of her garments. “It’s (braille) a tactile language and I think that was something I related to in textiles.” Textures were also an incredibly important part of the concept in order to recreate the significance of experiencing things through touch. Bianca used a combination of organza silks, tulle and a plastic like material which has the look and feel of skin, exploring the idea of using touch to pick up information.
Bianca says that her interest in fashion started to develop as a teenager and says it was when she took up a silversmithing course that she realised she was able to do a lot through touch, such as the cutting and shaping of the silver. “I loved drawing accessories and girls with clothes and I was very interested in sculpture on the body.” After school Bianca did two Foundation In Art courses that enabled her to really develop her passion for fashion and textiles skills. She learnt different textile methods; batik, silk prints, monographs, paper making and practical techniques such as pattern cutting.
When designing and creating her garments, Bianca starts by drawing large scale, A2 size drawings of the designs, she then drapes the fabric onto the mannequin and works from the mannequin to shape the clothes and has people that she instructs to cut the patterns for her. “By my direction, I would say, ‘we need to make this sleeve 20cm longer, wider…,’ and we would work on the patterns together.”
At 24 years, having recently graduated with a 1st from Kingston University, Bianca already has firm ideas about what she wants to go on to do next. As well as being selected to showcase at London Fashion Week, Bianca was also shortlisted for the Sophie Hallette lace competition and although she did not win the competition, Bianca was able to use Sophie Hallette lace (used for haute couture designs, including Kate Middleton’s wedding dress) in her dresses for the collection. It is these types of haute couture garments that Bianca would like to continue to make in the future under her own fashion label. Her plan is that the business would be fully accessible for people who are visually impaired and will actively promote the talents of visually impaired individuals in the fashion industry. Describing her plans, Bianca says, “I want to somehow give opportunities to people that have been given to me.”
Bianca says that whilst she has received a lot of support and encouragement from peers throughout her studies, this has certainly not always been the case, and she believes that art and textiles need to be encouraged a lot more amongst individuals with a visual impairment and from a young age. Bianca feels that creative subjects are generally not as encouraged at school as much as they should be for all children, but especially amongst children and young people with a visual impairment. The assumption is sometimes made that they are better suited to subjects such as maths and science that are less reliant upon vision.
Bianca’s own sight condition is something she has had from birth and is a combination of three things; toxoplasmosis, severe short-sightedness and Nystagmus. She has limited vision in her left eye and almost no vision in her right eye. Talking about the attitudes she encountered at school Bianca says, ““They never encouraged me to do fashion or art. I just wanted to do it…It’s very hard for youngsters to hear that they can’t do something because it really wrecks your self-esteem.” Elaborating on this, Bianca says that when you have a visual impairment, people always think about what you can’t do first rather than what you can do. She described her experience at Kingston University as incredibly positive in this respect as they worked with her to identify solutions to any challenges she encountered. She says that schools and universities have a responsibility to encourage more visually impaired individuals to take up art and fashion and make it more accessible, but also that art in general needs to be encouraged more. “Creative people make a lot of life-happinesses and our culture is mainly formed on creativity.”
Asked what she would say to other young people with a visual impairment wanting to pursue art and fashion she says, “Never think that you can’t do something. It needs to be your choice and you have your own path to feel successful in...You have to pursue what you want to do in order to be happy.”Bianca’s advice is certainly reflective of her own experiences so far and her ambitions for the future, “If you feel you can make a difference then you’ve got to do it even more as you might be the next person that actually stands out there and creates something that’s absolutely inspirational for another generation.”

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