© Photography by Benjo Arwas
Interview with disability fashion stylist and advocate Stephanie Thomas.
The LA-based BOF-500 honoree Stephanie Thomas is shaping and educating the fashion industry by redefining fashion styling for people with disabilities. She is the founder of the disability fashion platform Cur8able and has invented the DISABILITY FASHION STYLING SYSTEM™ back in 2004. She uses her styling system in order to help people with disabilities get dressed with confidence, dignity and as much independence as possible. Her aim is to bridge the gap between where the fashion industry is and where it must inevitably go to be more inclusive. In our conversation, she talks about her career path, introduces us to adaptive fashion and shows how the fashion industry and we as a society can become more responsive to the needs of people with disabilities.
© Courtesy of Stephanie Thomas
What inspired you to become a disability fashion stylist and advocate? And when did you start?
It started while I was in the Miss America pageant system in a preliminary pageant where I came in as the third runner up to Miss Kentucky. One Day, my coach took a look at my cuff and noticed that I never buttoned my left cuff. That's when it dawned on me that I didn't button it because I don't have a right thumb. That’s where it all started for me. My TEDx Talk really goes into detail about this.
Actually, I was an advocate before I became a disability fashion stylist from 1992 to like 2000. I was really just asking questions and talking to anyone I could find. I just couldn't shake it. At that point I didn’t know what styling was, I didn't have the fashion lexicon to really delve into it, so I just kept studying and participated in independent living centers to learn more.
Not having a straight shot from learning about the topic has been the greatest part of my story. It has allowed me to really pay attention to other people with disabilities. I knew my experience, I knew the shame I felt. I knew things that people said to me. But it wasn't really until I discovered that this was an overall issue that was overlooked and it was kind of annoying to me.
What kind of problems and needs do your clients have that come to you for styling purposes?
It really depends on the disability. It's not a design issue. People need to be able to get in and out of the clothing easily. I want to make sure that people who have seated body types and use their wheelchair, have their butt covered with the pants in the back. So high in the back, maybe longer in the front and really strategically placed pockets that are comfortable. I want to make sure that I pull clothing that honors the body type of my clients, period!
If someone has arthritis in the shoulder, that's what I focus on. If someone has dexterity challenges, that's what I focus on. If someone is an amputee, whose one hip sits higher than the other - it's like problem solving, which is what I love most about my job. To prescribe, not like a doctor, but just like a stylist, to suggest pieces that will work with their disability to help them or dress them with as much dignity and independence as possible. I think that's pretty amazing that you can do that with clothing.
How does adaptive fashion make their lives easier?
I would like to push back on the idea that adaptive clothing alone makes their life easier. There are specific situations like for people that wear AFO, which are braces that extend to the foot and usually come up part of the leg, where you need a wider shoe and certain accommodations such as openings at the bottom.
I use my DISABILITY FASHION STYLING SYSTEM™ in order to help make dressing easier. ACCESSIBLE, SMART, FASHIONABLE™. I trademarked it in 2004 and came up with it by asking the following questions when talking to people about dressing with disabilities. Is it accessible, easy to put on and take off? Is it smart, smart for your health, medically safe? Do you love it? And that’s the question that most people leave out. There aren’t enough fashionable adaptive brands to accommodate the needs of the market. I use my styling system in order to bridge the gap between where the fashion industry is and where it must inevitably go to be more inclusive.
What is the most inspiring experience you have had in your job?
I've had a lot of inspiring moments. I really love when I have an opportunity to be acknowledged by the fashion industry. So all of the articles I've been written up in, it just means the world to me, because for a very long time, the fashion industry was not paying attention to my clientele. And now they're beginning to pay attention to people with disabilities as fashion customers, viable fashion customers. When I was actually contacted by the Business of Fashion and included in BOF 500, that was amazing.
I flew to Paris and had an opportunity to be a part of the gala and I spoke at their first annual symposium. It was incredible. My TEDx Talk, you know, my mom was there for that. So many moments with my clients are really special too, because you get to have some immediate gratification watching people react to putting on a shirt independently or being able to wear really beautiful shoes that they didn't think that they could wear.
Many people look up to you and see you as an inspiring person, how does it feel?
Sometimes people look at me and they're really fascinated, but they're not just inspired by my work because it's innovative. I looked at my strengths and weaknesses and I really mapped out a way in which I could create a space for myself to really make a difference for people. But when people look at me and they're inspired because my clients have disabilities, I understand the sentiment and it's not malicious. I don't want anyone to get the idea from this article that they should feel that I'm inspiring because my clients have disabilities. That would keep us in more of the charitable medical model of disability, where we're looking at people with disabilities as people to be pitied and I really don’t want anyone to be treated like that.
Therefore, I often challenge people to reconsider why they think my work is inspiring. Now, I've had people say they think it's inspiring because I've identified an often overlooked people group. - Boom, that's legit to me. I'm inspirational because I'm a person with a disability helping other people with disabilities. I do feel proud that it's nothing for us without us, that I'm a part of the conversation and a part of the community.
As a person living with what my doctors have referred to as a non severe disability, I just don't want to be treated like that as well. I want to make that distinction, because I think a lot of well-meaning people do not view people with disabilities as vibrant, beautiful dating people. I want people to understand that we are living our best lives and sometimes we have pain. I never really identified myself as someone with a disability, not because I was ashamed, but because I thought, I don't fit the image of what I'm told disability looks like.
From your point of view, how can we build a society that is more responsive to the needs of people with disabilities?
The first thing that I would say is to communicate to people that this is not a design issue. The fashion industry hasn't overlooked people with disabilities because of a design issue. The real issue is that there are attitudinal barriers, meaning that the way people think about disabilities really impacts how people design for disability.
One of the things I said in my TEDx Talk was that “You can't design for someone you don't see and you can't see someone you don't value as a fashion customer.” Right now, we have more clothing options designed specifically for dogs and pets than we do for people with disabilities. So that quote is actually what led me to do the PJDJ campaign. I was a radio DJ and I decided that I want to raise awareness, because people don't pay attention. I packed away all of my clothes for a year to limit my own clothing options so that every time I went into Target to buy clothes, I could only buy loungewear and pajamas. I would talk about the need for more clothing options for people with disabilities. Every day, I'd give them a different fact or a different anecdote about someone dressing with disabilities. That's what really led me to go get a second graduate degree in fashion journalism.
After being in pajamas for 365 days and talking about this, I wanted to take this to the next level. I was literally just helping people and empowering them, but not asking anything in return. And in order for me to really be able to do my business, I needed to create a business. I refused to create a not for profit because I don't want people to see my clients as medical patients. I want them to see my clients as actual fashion customers.
How did the adaptive fashion market develop over the last years?
If someone wants to get in the adaptive fashion industry, they are still early to the market. Right now, we have the amazing work of Tommy Adaptive, Zappos Adaptive, Patti and Ricky, Samantha Bullock and more. Things are happening. I specifically work mostly with people here in Hollywood or people that are in entertainment or in fashion. I hear a lot from them that they don't like adaptive fashion, so I show them how to build a wardrobe that honors their body but still allows them to dress according to their own style aesthetic.
I think the industry will change. As I'm watching the effects of Covid-19, I really believe that the industry is going to leapfrog adaptive fashion and go to more human design, which is even the next step beyond universal design. I'm in L.A, I'm still in my home, sheltering in place, teaching my university courses from home because of Covid. So when I looked at everyone wearing loungewear, I wrote a piece about loungewear being kind of the next logical step to a universal design. A universal design with very few fasteners is reduction, which is amazing for the planet and when it comes to fashion waste as well. I think fashion is going to become more local and our supply chains are going to change.
Do you think fashion brands will pay more attention to people with disabilities in the near future?
Yeah, absolutely. People with disabilities are people. We're part of a group that anyone can join at any moment. That's not a threat, it's a reality, and it should be a sobering reality, meaning that if you become a person with a disability, what choices do you want? What kind of closet do you want? Keeping that in mind and thinking about someone other than our damn selves makes us more capable of participating in more human centered design.
What are your goals and plans with your platform Cur8able?
We've lost a lot of people and over 100’000 families have been impacted by deaths because of Covid. That's a lot of sadness. But I'll also say that it has been a blessing to me because it has gotten me to the point where I can actually focus on styling. I would say that the future of cur8able is style focused, really allowing me to create content that I want to see out there.
I want to keep my eye on the industry and be able to respond with wisdom and strategically make sure that I'm meeting the needs of brands that need me to consult. Make sure that I'm helping E-commerce organizations with their styling, making sure that I'm giving my clients what they need and making sure that I'm hitting my own core principles, empowerment and education - educating the fashion industry and empowering people with disabilities. That's always the goal, getting rid of those negative stereotypes about people with disabilities through fashion styling.