Profile on 2020 Ed Roberts Award Winner, Stephanie Thomas
Stephanie Thomas, founder and CEO of Cur8able, has created her own space right at the intersection of fashion, business, media, and advocacy. When I commented that she seems really busy, she wondered, “Why does everyone say that? Am I doing too much?”
The truth is, Stephanie is doing the trailblazing work that she believes she needs to do, especially as a person with a disability. She’s developed a disability styling system, regularly styles for brands and models runs a podcast and a blog teaches at Woodbury University, and recently finished writing a textbook, Fitting In The Social Implications of Fashion and Dressing with Disabilities, to be released this spring. On top of all of that, she’s also a SAG-AFTRA voice actor.
Her path hasn’t been straight, nor one without struggle. In the early 90s, she packed her whole life into 23 boxes and moved alone to Los Angeles, where she began working in radio and TV. With a lifelong interest in fashion, she’d been following clothing and retail trends, gathering what she calls “ethnographic research.” This included stopping people on the streets and talking to anyone who would engage. “It’s kind of what I do, I turn every conversation into a conversation about dressing with disabilities,” she confessed.
“What I found is that people just don’t really understand disability. So I decided to come up with something that would allow me to act as a bridge and liaison with where the fashion industry is and where it has to inevitably go. And that’s where the Disability Fashion Styling System was born.” That was in 2004.
The Disability Fashion Styling System has three principles - Accessible, Smart, Fashionable. Each piece of clothing must be easy to put on and take off, medically safe, & loved by the wearer. An integral component of Stephanie’s styling process is having conversations and hanging out with clients so she has a clear vision of how her clients want to present to the world and how she can style them to express that.
“I style to honor bodies -- not hide them, not apologize for them, and not make people feel sorry for them. I feel like the thing we don’t do for people with disabilities is see them, and one thing fashion does is it allows people to show up as how they see themselves in their mind,” she shared.
While popular discourse on the psychology of dress is widespread, finding fashion-related literature that centers diversity and inclusion can be difficult, especially when it comes to disability. “We usually learn about disability through awareness days, or someone in our family has a disability, or we get injured. There’s been no big effort or push to educate people on disability, or disability as a culture,” Stephanie contended. So, in typical Stephanie Thomas fashion, she identified a gap in social learning and created a space to educate and bring awareness. Through her textbook Fitting In, readers can explore the narratives that form disability culture, as well as the prevailing biases and social implications that circulate around it.
With 28 years of expertise, Stephanie was recently honored in the 2019 Business of Fashion 500, a prestigious index of creatives, stylists, designers, and more who are shaping modern fashion. Stephanie was the only person representing disability fashion on the list. Although change happens slowly, major advances like this hold culture-shifting potential.
So, what does the future of adaptive clothing look like? First and foremost, Stephanie believes that the existence of adaptive clothing needs to be public knowledge, and that it needs some in-store, physical real estate, as if to say “We see you!”
The future of truly accessible clothing lies in universal design, where clothing is simply manufactured to be safe and accessible for all wearers -- with the exception of seated and vertical body types, where specific design for these body types and tailoring may be the best avenues.
“You know who’s killing the game right now? Footwear. So many brands are getting rid of laces, or making their footwear slide-ons.” She particularly commended Zappos, who she frequently works with, and their adaptive footwear line.
Despite Stephanie’s (and others’) commitment to progress, adaptive fashion is still seen as a niche, and this needs to change. We know that there's an incredibly high demand for this market when billions of people have disabilities. In fact, Vogue estimates it’s a $400 billion industry. While Stephanie is clearly doing the work, she believes that the disability community as a whole must want more and expect more for their own sake, and to create some momentum.
“I want [people with disabilities] not to berate but personally write their favorite brands, saying ‘hey, I love your brand! I’d love to be able to wear it more! I want them to expect to be treated with dignity and independence, to expect to walk into a store and not have to fight with the rails because there’s not enough room for a wheelchair. I want them to expect that someone will understand the difference in their seated body type.”