Alleles Design Studio prosthetics fuse fashion with function
A Victoria couple is refashioning the prosthetic design industry
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A Victoria couple is refashioning the prosthetic design industry
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Prosthetic legs have long been regarded utilitarian devices for helping people who have had amputations move around. There hasn’t, in other words, been much room for personality.
That always bothered McCauley Wanner.
“Industrial design is kind of a weird industry; it's more engineer-based,” Wanner says. “I just wanted to figure out if there’s a way to take a fashion approach to the industry.”
As a graduate student at the University of Calgary, Wanner’s thesis project looked into the gap within the medical prosthetics industry that fulfilled function, but not fashion or individual aesthetics.
Together with her partner Ryan Palibroda, she created Alleles Design Studio to help clients create their perfect prosthetic fit with customized designs that looked and felt beautiful.
“With medical [products], you always get what you get, because it technically works for you,” Palibroda said.
”We wanted this to be something that people would shop for, and they’d find something that suits their personality.”
But the decision to take a leap of faith into the business world didn’t come easy to the pair. Rather it took several years of mulling, wondering, and imagining the possibilities for Wanner and Palibroda to finally realize the concept into a physical product.
“I just thought [Wanner’s thesis] was one of the best ideas I’d ever seen. But it did take us a couple years after we finished school to really get into treating it like a business,” Palibroda said.
So in 2015, the couple moved to Victoria to establish their roots for Alleles Design Studio. BC’s capital, at the time, was the most affordable option. With a plethora of commercial spaces available to lease, they first chose to establish themselves at a studio space in Market Square. The couple was also able to find an apartment to rent for just $800—a pipe dream in today’s market.
And though the pair prefers a faster, metropolitan lifestyle, the city’s sleepier vibe allowed them to be more productive. “Which is why we ended up leaving Montreal, because it's like, all people do is go out and socialize and drink,” Wanner said. “Does anyone want to, like, get anything done?”
Once here, they set up shop and established themselves as one of the only options in North America for affordable, consumer-friendly, and fashion-forward prosthetics. Personality abounds in the products Alleles creates: from florals to skulls to circuit boards and more, the prosthetic legs carry patterns that are not meant to be hidden beneath a pant leg, but rather supposed to be shown off to the world.
Alleles Design Studio doesn’t identify itself as a prosthetics company. Instead Wanner and Palibroda feel that at the core of the operation they are simply what their name suggests: a design studio.
This is because the company doesn’t create prosthetics themselves, but rather builds customized skins with different artwork and patterns for consumers to wear. These products and designs go straight to the clientele, with the prices listed directly on their website.
“That is not how the prosthetic industry works; they do not like that,” Wanner said.
“When we first started, we had a lot of big companies calling us,” said Palibroda, “They’re like, ‘You guys need to not list your prices, people can’t know what you’re billing or what they’re paying for.’”
Palibroda and Wanner decided to do the opposite, and their choices as a startup forced larger companies to drive down their own prices in order to stay competitive.
When the couple were first starting out, they priced their designs at $350 to $450 CAD, while their main competitor—a company called ‘Unyq’ that followed suit about three months after Alleles was the first, globally, to market this type of product—listed their prices at around $2,500 USD, according to Palibroda. Since then, Alleles has upped their prices by a few hundred dollars, while their competitor lowered theirs. (Unyq’s prices are not listed on their website, and these price comparisons are based on Wanner and Palibroda’s testimonies.)
“If people are going to have a device their whole life, they want to identify with this thing that’s actually a part of their identity, their body,” Wanner said.
“In more than a way that’s just purely functional,” Palibroda added.
Wanner and Palibroda add that they feel fortunate to have their business in an online format with a global clientele base, especially given the circumstances of the past two years.
Each wave of the pandemic brought an onslaught of unpredictable gains and losses from every country that their products were available in. No matter how proactive they were, trends emerged of either customers getting hit with supply chain shortages or unpredictability in raw material delivery times.
“We were extremely proactive, maybe to the point of a little bit of overkill,” Palibroda said. A certain level of foresight was necessary, given what their suppliers were telling them. “[Our suppliers] were like, ‘We can’t tell you how much it’s going to be, we don’t know when it’s going to be, it could be 10 times the price by the time you get it,’” he said.
Now almost two years later, Wanner and Palibroda say they’re doing better—and on the bright side they now have a mountain of materials that’s finally been delivered.
Wanner and Palibroda’s relationship doesn’t end with the workday; they’re partners in business and in life.
“Starting a business, you don’t have work life balance anyways,” Palibroda said, with Wanner chuckling in the background, “But at least we get to see each other.”
Before starting Alleles in Victoria, the pair lived and worked from Montreal but were barely able to see one another despite living together. Now they see each other all day, every day, and that’s part of why they’ve been so successful.
“We both see exactly what each other is working on all the time and when someone’s struggling, the other person pulls the weight at home,” Wanner said.
Not everyone has seen their business in the same positive light.
Wanner’s thesis almost didn’t get approved by her advisors at the University of Calgary due to ethical qualms. They questioned her attempt to bring something as frivolous and commercial as fashion design to a sensitive medical issue.
Wanner, obviously, sees it differently.
“It’s not like we’re rolling in money; we’re just trying to create an option,” she said.
“We’re making a product that adds value to people, that makes them feel better about themselves. If no one wants it, then the market decides—and we let people who have disabilities decide if they want it,” adds Palibroda.
Wanner sees hope in the future with more and more designers and companies looking to create inclusive design, and the couple is determined to help push that wave of change forward with Alleles in the years to come.
“Fashion and representation is still new. It’s only in the last five years that we have seen advancements with people with Down Syndrome, or little people, or amputees on runways,” Wanner said. “That did not happen before five years ago.”
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Capital Daily: What does Victoria need to do to make it easier to run a business?
Palibroda: City Hall needs to be a little bit more professional with how they deal with small businesses.
Wanner: I feel like that was something where it's actually almost made us leave. Two years, we almost actually fired everyone and left because our experience dealing with the City of Victoria was terrible. We were just trying to get building permits, and no one would respond.
Wanner: Besides that, I feel the biggest thing has always been that Victoria is a very sleepy, quiet town and there’s no one really our age. We’re used to, when we're done work at night, going on a journey. But at 5:00 everything's closed. It was very depressing. But I feel since the pandemic with the work from home thing, people from like Toronto, Vancouver, and major city centers that are professionals our age are coming in. There's more urban places now and things are lively. If you walk downtown, there's people our age and things are open.
Palibroda: If they could keep the street patios after the pandemic, I feel that would be amazing.
Wanner: It feels much more vibrant, even in the past two years.
What worries you most about your business?
Wanner: I feel like we're doing better lately. But I think the hardest thing is just having the confidence in yourself to make the decisions you need on all these different levels and not get distracted by the noise. Just staying true to the reason you're doing things. The hardest part for us is to prioritize what is important at the time and to not give away all of ourselves.
Palibroda: Our accountant thinks what they need is the most important thing in the world, and the lawyers think what they need is the most important thing in the world.
Wanner: And all of it is so expensive. All of it takes so much time and all of it is on our shoulders to balance which decision to prioritize when. We're focusing more on our mental health to be able to work through the noise and not let ourselves become our biggest barrier of the business.
Palibroda: Because if we're in a bad headspace, the business definitely suffers.
What do you wish you knew before starting?
Palibroda: You can never know.
Wanner: People need to just go in and just deal with it. There's no amount of preparation for any business, you just go in. When there's a fire, you put it out. And when there's another fire, you put it out. If you knew the things you had to do, how much it actually would cost, and how much time you were investing, no one would start a business. And that's where I do love the Government of Canada, and how they back businesses because they understand what it takes to do that. They just want you to not give up because you're the reason people are having jobs.
What other local business leaders do you look to for guidance?
Wanner: We had a business mentor in the past that kind of made us go backwards. But now we got two new ones. One is a sales mentor and the other is a business mentor, and they are amazing. His name is John Walmsley, and he just recently moved to a new business but worked at StarFish Medical for a long time.
Then we have another guy, he hasn't lived in Victoria long, though. He's kind of like a consultant for rocket builders. So it's like an EC based incubator. They work with scalable businesses.
Palibroda: Yeah, Reg, he's unreal.
Wanner: So I feel like those two have been instrumental.
Palibroda: Also, Trevor Mon.
Wanner: Yeah, we have an advisor through the CRA, and he has been basically one of the main reasons we've stayed in Victoria this long. He is incredible.
Palibroda: I actually can't say enough good things about the CRA. Because I feel as far as running a business, there’s rumors that you hear before about the government and taxes and audits and stuff like that. I think the best thing that ever happened to us early on is we got audited by the government and the auditors came and they were unreal.
Wanner: I think it's because we actually aren't afraid of that. We just like learning. So they were like, “You're getting audited.” We're like, “Sweet, can you teach us about this, this, this, this?” And they stayed for like seven hours and went through this stuff.
People are so afraid of that stuff. But you just need to dive in and learn it. And there's just so much opportunity and that's the difference. I found locally, like the City of Victoria, I felt like they were trying to hold us back. Whereas the Government of Canada, they want you to succeed. They have stuff they want you to do as small businesses, whereas locally I just felt like we were a pain in the ass.
If you had $10,000 to invest, where would you invest in?
Wanner: I feel like I would come up with some sort of War Amps thing, but in the world of the arts and disabilities or fashion inclusivity. Some sort of grant for disabled artists, where we're gonna do a super high end fashion shoot with someone.
Palibroda: I’d just pay our models more.
Wanner: That's something we've always talked about that we do want to work towards in our own company. Have some sort of way that people can apply to do these super artistic things but we would reward them. When we started in the world of prosthetics, everything's all about functionality. So everyone wants to work with Paralympians. Every prosthetic company works with Paralympians, but we prioritize design and art and fashion and lifestyle. Our ambassadors are lawyers, they’re chefs, and not everyone's an athlete. And so that was always our angle. I think if we could foster that, because one of the things we always say as a mission for us: culture is what you reward. We want to reward and put more emphasis on fashion and design and foster that with at least what we can do with our company. That's what we care about.
Palibroda: I feel like the company will be proven as successful when those types of people are making the kind of money that rivals like runway models and fashion models.
Wanner: I always feel it's that chip on the shoulder with artists and design against engineering. The arts have so much value to add, but they never get any funding.
How do you stay inspired to keep running your business?
Palibroda: It changes. Different things are interesting. Sometimes the design part is good, sometimes the financial part is interesting, sometimes the legal part is interesting, it’s all of it. There’s so much stuff to learn, so how could it not be interesting. It’s a lot more interesting when it’s not stressful. That’s when I feel it’s more inspiring, when it’s doing well enough that you can dive into something when you want, instead of when you have to.
What is the first thing you’ll do when all pandemic protocols stop?
Wanner: One thing we’ve always wanted to do is our own runway models, where the clothes match the covers and everything and all our models are amputees. We’ve never got to have an opening like that. We’ve never celebrated the launch of our company. If there’s ever a way to bring all of our ambassadors together to meet each other and have a super fun thing where we can celebrate building this community, that's the one thing I feel we’ve been wanting to do since we started.
Palibroda: We always do things backwards. I feel a lot of people do that to build hype at the beginning. For us, it is to celebrate all the work that we’ve done, the friendships and partnerships, and all the work that these people have done over the years. Someone a long time ago asked us a question, “Aren’t people doing enough to design for disabilities?” There’s a lot of people that are busting their ass for no money, just really pushing things ahead. It’d be so nice to actually celebrate those people that have been working so hard for nothing but making gains for the disability community and just culture in general.
Correction on Jan 7 at 11:15 am: An earlier version of this article referred to a "disabled mentor" due to a transcription error. The article has been updated to reflect the reference to a sales mentor.