Meet the blind fashion student who’s worked with Mary Katrantzou

Bianca Von Stempel is overcoming the odds

Bianca Von Stempel isn’t your average fashion student. 

The 20-year-old, who studies at Kingston, is registered blind. She told me about how her condition affects her work, her inspirations and ambitions.

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Could you tell me a bit about your disability? 

I’m registered blind and I don’t have any fine vision. So, fine vision is where you see at a distance, or see detail at a distance. I can only see with my peripheral site, I see shapes and colour.

My brain makes up for most of what I can’t see – it tells me that’s a door or if I’m about to walk into a tree or something. Your brain makes up for a lot of loss of sight.

I was born with my eye condition so it’s probably never going to change. I used to read braille but when I wanted to do art and textiles I realised I needed to learn text and print format. When I was thirteen I learned how to read and write. It was really fucking hard.

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Given that you learned it at thirteen, you must have known very early on that you wanted to go into fashion.

My mum’s an artist and I come from a very arty family, so I always thought I’d do something arty. I had such a difficult start in life with my eye problems, I longed to do something I thought would be easy, which for some reason I thought would be fashion. Actually, as it turns out, fashion is really tough.

How much tougher is it made by your being blind? 

It makes things like photoshop and adobe, anything on a computer so difficult. Everything I do on a computer has to be really big. With something like photoshop, where the icons are tiny, it’s so hard to keep track of where I am once I’ve made the icons big enough for me to see.

I completely lose where I am on the page. It’s like being lost in a maze.

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Pattern cutting is difficult, especially with the sewing machines – I need someone to physically sew the lines down for me. We use huge industrial sewing machines which are as loud as machine guns, they’re like monsters. The needle – and this is a massive needle – goes 100 mph.

If you get stuck in that (and people have done at uni) you have to go to hospital and get it removed.

I said to Bonnie who helps me with them, “please let me have a go with the machine – I can sew this” and she was like “nooooo Bianca.” I know where everything needs to go, it’s just having someone to physically put them together.

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It’s so hard to use this equipment without fine sight, I think in a lot of ways I’m doing the hardest degree I could have done [laughs].

When it comes to things like embroidering I do it through my sense of touch, through feeling. That’s how I’ve always done it. People always say “How do you thread a needle?” Things like that.

I’m honestly not sure what the answer is. I just kind of know it’s there.

So your other senses compensate?

Definitely yeah. Because I read braille for so long (from the age of four) I guess my sensitivity is so, so strong. I’m not sure it’s better but there’s something unusual about it.

Would you say there are advantages to being blind and doing this kind of work then?

Yeah, sort of. You use more of your other senses to work round these difficult problems. Feeling fabric for instance. Finding the right fabric, the right textures can be easier.

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In other ways it is a hindrance. Needing someone to do things like the sewing isn’t ideal. The computer stuff stresses me out as well. I have to plan things in a rigid way that other people don’t.

What are other people’s perceptions of you like? Are they supportive or surprised? 

Many people are surprised. I’m a massive sporty person as well. I love running and I think people are always a bit shocked by that. In the summer I went running and broke a few bones in my foot, I went to A&E and they were baffled by the fact I was a fashion student.

I do end up explaining myself a lot. I’ve had people say “you want to be a BLIND designer?!”

Other people are different. A lot of people are really shy, I think because they wonder if I can actually see them or they’re worried they’ll offend me. Some people are nice and they make an effort to understand and others don’t say anything because they are a little bit frightened I think.

Does that kind of reaction make you more determined to succeed?

Yeah definitely. I know I’m going to succeed. There’s no way I’d end up not doing anything. I will work in fashion. I want to get a first so badly, I think I’d be disappointed with anything less. I’m like everyone else in that way I guess. Perhaps I’m more hyper – like “I have to get this” – because it would prove so many people wrong, people who think I can’t do anything because I’m blind.

Are your ambitions in fashion? 

Yeah, definitely. I’m half Italian and I’d like to move there next year once I’ve finished this degree. It would be great to live and work the dream there. Hopefully I’ll learn some more Italian and go out there.

I want to do high couture, that’s my dream. I really love embroidery and I do so much of it. One of the projects we’re doing at the moment involves contacting companies or established designers (who can never be bothered to talk to students) and get correspondence emails from them.

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Mary Katrantzou was someone I got in touch with, she does a lot of high end fashion and she’s worked with Adidas. She does loads of embroidery and print. At the moment I’m embroidering a lot of flowers and beading and sequins in the same style. It’s very close in, technical work.

How would you describe your aesthetic? 

I’m a very feminine designer, I only design women’s wear. I love embellishment and print. My shapes and silhouettes are very complicated. I love illustration as well.

I guess I’m quite a “pretty” designer. I do lots of pretty, beautiful things. I look for natural things.

What materials do you like working in?

I really love sheer, which is see through. I really like that because it creates the illusion that what you’re seeing is blurred. It gives the sense of what I actually see when I look at things in the physical world. I love it.

I also use loads of silks and chiffons. I also love working with leather. Anything with the ability to have textures or embossing on them. For my collection I’m going to use a lot leather with embossed parts, something for people to feel. I’ve also used a lot of plastic recently.

Who inspires you? Where do you get ideas from?

The natural world is a big inspiration. I do follow a lot of designers as well, like Mary Katrantzou, who I already mentioned, I find her work interesting. I love the Italian designers like Gucci and Prada. Every year they put out stunning collections. Valentino does a shit load of increcible embroidery. In my heart I would love to work for any of them.