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Industrial design graduate creates award-winning life vest

When recent UL Lafayette industrial design graduate Jessie Kate Brown began her senior thesis project, she had one purpose: design a comfortable, form-fitting life preserver for women.

“It’s a part of our culture and heritage in Louisiana to fish and to go boating, and many traditional life jackets are restrictive. I wanted to design one that’s both functional and comfortable,” explained Brown, who goes by Kate.

She succeeded.

Brown, who started the project last fall, learned several days ago that her Comfort Flex Life Vest placed third in the Innovations in Life Jacket Design Competition. BoatUS Foundation sponsored the international contest.

Jerry Malinowski, coordinator of UL Lafayette’s industrial design program, said Brown emerged near the top of a field that included teams from large firms. There were over 250 entries from 40 countries.

“I really enjoyed working with Kate, who has developed into a true professional,” Malinowski said of his former student, who earned a bachelor’s degree in August.

Brown is using $2,000 in prize money she netted for her strong showing in the BoatUS Foundation competition to help her pursue a patent, and promote her design.

She is confident there’s a niche in the marketplace for a better-fitting life jacket for women who, like her, love to be on the water.

Brown, who is from Basile, Louisiana, near Eunice, grew up fishing with her father and grandfather. She found most life vests too bulky.

Another problem is that many don’t fit snugly enough, and ride up, she added. Brown’s life preserver has smaller armholes than many traditional models, which also prevents water from pushing it up over the wearer’s head.

It also hugs the body, “like a shirt,” she explained, thanks to elastic fabric similar to Spandex. The material stretches across the sides of Brown’s vest, tapering it from an area under the armpits to the waist. The elastic material and tapered design allow for freer arm movement than bulkier life vests.

The bulk of the vest is made of polyethelene foam sheathed in nylon.

Brown began her project by tinkering with several designs made of craft paper that she pinned to mannequins. Next, she sewed several prototypes.

She tested her vest on other industrial design students, who provided feedback on its buoyancy, and comfort.

“I relied on my classmates heavily, and refined the design many times,” Brown explained.

In June, she learned that she was selected one of 14 finalists in the Innovations in Life Jacket Design Competition.

That same month, a family tragedy steeled her resolve to see her life preserver make it into the hands of consumers.

Her mother’s first cousin drowned after falling into the Calcasieu River. He tripped and hit his head while tying a fishing boat to his houseboat. He wasn’t wearing a life preserver.

Brown was recently interviewed by KATC about her project and her competition win. To watch the interview, check out the following link: