When are Prada, Gucci and Armani going to try their arts on the wheelchair? Creating from the front wheels to the backrest, a glorious fashion statement, rather than an unavoidable announcement of medical need?
The first wheelchairs in Britain appear have been cumbersome Bath chairs. Named, it is supposed, because they were used by visitors to that city seeking the curative powers of its waters. But it took a bevy of servants to push and shove them to the famous Pump Rooms.
In a vast Bath chair, people were barely visible. It feels that way still. Why can’t a wheelchair be something like a new dress, suit or hat: something you itch to be seen in? Why does it require the strength of a weight lifter to manoeuvre it into a car? Why is it made of materials that may mark everything else?
Andrew Slorance asked himself each of those questions as he first struggled to get underway in his own wheelchair, in public, at the age of 14. After two decades working in television, he took the plunge, gave up his job and set about creating something his teenage self would have twirled around the dance floor in utter delight. From the word go, it is imagined as something sculpted and shaped to give pleasure to the eye, but that also caters for every mobility need.
Andrew says he knew from the beginning that it would be made with carbon fibre. Exploring the frontiers of technology, though, can create a very expensive item. The Carbon Black chair costs 10 times more than a light weight standard alternative – even when every mobility grant is thrown in.
It has to be hand crafted. That’s the way it is with small volume carbon fibre products. OK for Formula 1 cars or Airbus wings, but a real obstacle in a market measured in thousands. Andrew thinks it will never be a cheap option. Andrew warns:
If you go too far away from what people understand, you can make it too big a step for customers to take. There’s no guarantee that you will succeed. But I was determined to offer a revolutionary design, because that was what I wanted for myself. We can cut some costs, but on the carbon fibre elements there is a fundamental barrier.
So is there out there a future partner, prepared to push the boundaries on carbon fibre production and moulding?
Carbon Black is aimed at active, independent users:
Handles give out a message - I need help.
That’s not the image those who buy Carbon Black want to give. People come and offer to push. In the past, there was no choice. Clip-on handles are one of the things we have on the cards, but it will not be a fundamental part of the design.
Instead of the “Can I push?”Andrew now gets: “That’s cool, can I touch it? Are you one of those guys that plays basketball?” He won’t let that go.
Whatever the problem we are trying to address, we have to have stylish answers that are also practical.
Cost is my biggest enemy. For the moment we have to be content with breaking into the markets where people can afford what we offer, that is Europe and North America. We cannot conquer the rest of the world on our own! In the US, there is more of a can-do attitude and the roads and pavements are better than in Britain. California is an outdoors world that suits Carbon Black, hence the orders we have received.
Carbon Black’s design was registered through the quick and easy process of European registered designs. It has British, European, US, Canadian and Australian patents pending. From the beginning Andrew used a patent attorney. ‘I’d have needed a big wallet if I wanted to go after anyone in a foreign country trying to snitch my designs and ideas. The whole process of inventing and moving into production and selling is a journey into the unknown. You need help.
When I first filed for a British patent, I had a storm of emails and letters. There were all sorts of people in fake outfits trying to see what they could make out of me. It would have been easy to fall for some of them. They had proper letterheads. Their names seemed legit. I was glad I had invested in professional advice.
So, as for Prada, Gucci and Armani, Andrew has done the job already.
Even if Carbon Black stops tomorrow, we have shown wheelchairs can be beautiful, cool, sexy objects of pride.’ Will there now be the paradigm shift in wheelchairs that Dyson achieved for vacuum cleaners?