OAKLAND GARDENS — Before the chair, as he calls it, Kelvin Henry was always into fashion.
“I used to spend a lot of money on clothes but that stopped,” he said, after he became paralyzed from a gunshot to the back in 2004 near his home in East Flatbush.
“There were no options.”
Henry, who is 31 and studying engineering technology at Queensborough Community College, had dreamed of making his own adaptive clothing. But he couldn’t use the foot pedal on most industrial sewing machines.
He had an idea for a special part that would shift the control of the motor from the foot pedal to the weight of his arms. That idea “was in my head for a long time, probably years.”
He built it this year at the campus’ 3D printing lab with help from his professors, opening up a new world of sewing to him.
"If they can dream it, we want to be able to help them produce it," his professor, Michael Lawrence, said.
That design helped him win the top prize of $7,500 in The CUNY & Capital One Community College Innovation Challenge Finals, a nine-month program that helps students prepare their businesses.
Henry — who said he hates hearing the word “no” — plans to use the funds to grow his clothing company, Kmatikz, through which he designs and creates on his own.
Kelvin shows off his specialty-made jeans in his college's 3D printing lab. (DNAinfo/Katie Honan)
His designs integrate zippers and magnets to make it easier for people with limited mobility and in wheelchairs to get dressed.
They’re also stylish, which is something he was conscious of. His lack of clothing options was one of the many adjustments he had to make after he was shot on July 24, 2004.
That night, he promised a younger cousin he’d get his stolen bike back, and some people from his neighborhood started an argument, he said. He was shot while running away.
“I was sad — it was hard for everyone, hard for my family and friends,” Henry said.
“It was a life-changing experience for me.”
He had to relearn everything, but recalls how isolated he felt knowing it would be hard for him to buy his favorite clothes, which include Coogi and Ralph Lauren.
Although he’d never sewn beyond a simple needle-and-thread technique he learned from his mom and grandma, he wanted to create more options.
“You feel isolated, in a sense, with fashion,” he said.
His prize-winning entry is not just focused on clothing, though. It’s about opening up the world for people who may have felt limited before.
At QCC, where he hopes to graduate within the next year, he’s found unlimited options and help from professors and other students.
Nobody there ever told him “no,” he said. At the 3D lab, for example, his professors removed drawers on tables to allow him to work certain printing machines.
Through the CUNY and Capital One program, he’s been matched with mentors who will help him spend his money wisely and network.
“I have all these people who want to see me succeed,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to make it this far without the encouragement on campus.”