The founders of the Alleles Design Studio, McCauley Wanner, 27, and Ryan Palibroda, 32, first dreamed of designing high-fashion prosthetic covers years ago. Wanner developed the idea for the Medicine Hat, Alta.-based business during her industrial design studies, when she realized amputees had few affordable options for creative cosmetic covers.
A friend of the couple, John-Paul Austring, has been bothered by the lack of prosthetic options since doctors amputated his left leg when he was a 15-year-old battling bone cancer.
"Pretty much all my prosthetic legs that I first got were really ugly," says Austring, now 27. "There's just no other way for me to put it."
As a self-conscious teenager at the time, Austring recalls, he rarely wore shorts.
Other amputees Austring met shortly after his surgery inspired him with the amazing things they were doing, but Austring grew concerned that he never saw an artificial limb that was "the star of the show."
Austring yearned to see an amputee with a prosthesis that reflected the person's identity. "I think it would have added to that sense of hope and inspiration for me," he says.
He first saw what he deemed awesome and cool prosthetic cover designs when he met Wanner while both studied at the University of Calgary.
“I was always interested in fashion,” explains Wanner, who first started dabbling with prosthetics during her industrial design degree thesis in 2010.
During her thesis research, Wanner found a gap in the prosthetic market. Most artificial limbs are created with a focus on function rather than esthetics, she says, leaving fashion-conscious amputees few options for personalizing their prosthetic limbs.
Wanner compares the dilemma to one faced by early wearers of eyeglasses, when frames were clear or flesh-toned in a vain attempt to blend in.
“Then, all of a sudden, fashion designers came into the industry,” Wanner says. “[Now] there’s cat eyes, and there’s big, huge ones, red ones, green ones, blue ones — whatever you can imagine, and it transformed things.”
For her thesis, Wanner created what Palibroda calls "wearable art" for amputees: high-fashion cosmetic covers to add pizzazz to an otherwise plain-looking artificial limb.
They both loved her idea, but after Wanner’s graduation, they weren’t clear on how to turn such unique designs into wearable objects. The pair moved from Alberta to Montreal and started new jobs, temporarily placing prosthetic design on the backburner.
But they couldn’t stop talking about the idea. Wanner and Palibroda started living frugally, saving money and hoping to one day purchase the expensive equipment and software it would take to produce the covers.
Meanwhile, professionals started seeing an increased demand for unique prosthetic options.
Jon Allen founded the Alberta Artificial Limb clinic at the start of the new millennium and treats more than 100 patients annually, guiding them through the prosthetic process after amputation.
Allen says there has been "a total paradigm shift" in amputees' self-concept over the past few years.
"I'm getting more and more people looking for different types of cosmetics [rather] than normal look-like-a-real-leg cosmetics," he says.
Many people want to draw attention to their artificial limbs now, Allen explains.
Unfortunately, there are limited options available to fashion-savvy amputees.
Allen does his best to help by offering clients the option to have designs printed on their artificial limb's socket.
Even senior citizens have jumped on the opportunity, he says, remembering a woman in her 70s who asked for an imprint of sweet peas on her prosthetic.
"She used to grow sweet peas and her late husband used to call her sweet pea, and that's what she wanted on her socket," Allen remembers fondly.
Anything more intricate than an imprint on a socket is unaffordable for most patients, says Allen.
Only one other North American company, San Francisco-based Bespoke Innovations, seems to create a similar product. The company custom builds cosmetic covers, which it calls fairings, using 3D scanning. Clients generally pay $4,000 to $6,000 US, according to its website.
While working and saving money in Montreal, Wanner and Palibroda brainstormed ideas on how to overcome the need to charge thousands for custom-made designer prosthetic covers.
Finally, in May, they quit their jobs, sold their cars and moved into Wanner's parents' house in Medicine Hat, where they set up a studio and started experimenting with various materials and designs using their newly purchased CNC machine.
They settled on a method to standardize their creations to fit most lower limb amputees and determined they could create cosmetic covers that would cost a couple of hundred dollars.
"If people wanted one for going out dancing, or if someone wanted one for playing soccer, they can buy multiple ones ... and not break the bank," said Wanner.
Wanner and Palibroda plan to launch a fall-winter collection from their newly founded Alleles design studio in late September. Each cover will cost between $250 and $400, depending on the design.
The couple hope to release two collections annually, so far only for leg amputees. However, they are eager to work on children's and upper-limb lines in the future.
Allen, whom Wanner reached out to during her thesis, is eager to see the new collection, and says he would "absolutely" recommend it to his clients.
"It's like buying a neat grill for the front of your truck," he said.
Austring agrees, saying everyone he has shown the designs to so far can't help but think they're cool. He loves the robotic feel of some of the covers and is eager to try one over his prosthetic leg.
"This month I will hopefully be wearing one."