In 2012, during her second year as a fashion design student at New York’s Pratt Institute, Julia Wollner woke up unable to move the muscles in half of her face. She was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a nerve disorder that causes facial paralysis.
This year, Wollner used her experience with the disorder as a design inspiration for her senior thesis collection. Presented last week alongside the work of 21 other graduating students, her collection won the Liz Claiborne Concept to Product Award at the Pratt Institute’s 2014 Fashion Show—a high honor that comes with $25,000 from the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation.
The 22-year-old found in fashion design a creative outlet for expressing her physical and emotional struggles. "I wanted to take something negative and make it into something beautiful," Wollner tells Co.Design. "Going through any type of obstacle allows you to start noticing things differently—you begin to pay attention to things you never knew about. For me, this translates into how I think as a designer."
The slightly space-age collection features abstract prints Wollner made from photos of her face taken before and after contracting the disorder. The oversize pieces are cut from organza fabric that Wollner laminated herself, and they're meant to look flat and still. The fabric makes it tough to move freely, which subtly mimics the experience of facial paralysis.
“When the model is wearing it, she’s not completely restricted, but it’s still harder for her to move,” Wollner says in a short video about her process. “It feels a little bit uncomfortable, which is something that I went through." One T-shirt dress features an illustrated print based on facial exercises that Wollner’s physical therapist assigned, including instructions to smile or raise eyebrows five times a day. The word relax is printed down the back of one coat. The collection's striking aesthetic is as inspiring as the designer's attitude towards what she's been through.
Upon graduating, Wollner hopes to use her nice pile of winnings to help turn the collection into a clothing line. "No matter what, I am never going to stop making clothes and building a name for myself," she says.