24 Minutes with disability fashion stylist, Stephanie Thomas

24 Minutes with disability fashion stylist, Stephanie Thomas

Life's work

Text: Joan Kong

Los Angeles-based Stephanie Thomas lets us in on her 28-year career as a disability fashion stylist

Think of stylists and a throng of famous celebrity stylists or editorial stylists will most likely come to mind, but here’s a name that should also be on your radar—disability styling expert, Stephanie Thomas.

With 28 years of experience under her belt, she has championed a more diverse and inclusive fashion industry over the years, and as a congenital amputee (she was born with missing digits on her right hand and feet), she also uses fashion to advocate. Stephanie recently renewed the trademark on her styling system. Called the ‘Disability Fashion Styling System: Accessible, Smart, Fashionable’, it focuses on clothes that are easy to put on and take off, clothes that are medically safe, and clothes that people will love.

Below, Stephanie Thomas lets us in on her work (and advocacy) as a disability fashion stylist:

How did your career as a disability fashion stylist come about?

My career actually began as a community service project while competing in a local scholarship pageant in the Miss America pageant system. That community service project became a hobby, and 28 years later, that hobby is my life’s work.

Tell us more about adaptive clothing.

Adaptive clothing is clothing re-imagined to make dressing easy. For instance, pants made for wheelchair users, or as I refer to it in my lexicon, people with seated body types, since the clothing is designed for sitting. Also, footwear that accommodates AFO braces, alternative fasteners for button-down dress shirts and more. These are all examples of adaptive clothing.

As a disability fashion stylist—a title I coined to educate the fashion industry on my work—I use adaptive clothing and universally designed (aka human-centered) clothing to style my clients. All pieces I select must meet the standards of my Disability Fashion Styling System: Accessible, Smart, Fashionable. I curate a lot of pieces from Tommy Adaptive. Norma Komali and COS don't design adaptive clothing, but their design principles meet the standards of my styling system so they work. I also love brands like FFORA that understands luxury and human-centered design.

What are some of the adaptive clothing brands people should know?

Many of the adaptive brands that people should know are not sold on a global scale yet. Tommy Adaptive and Germany-based Rolli Moden are two of the biggest names, but there are also UK-based online store Samanta Bullock (that sells brands that also focus on sustainability), EveryHuman in Australia, IZ Adaptive in Canada, and FFORA in the US.

As a stylist, I have the opportunity to hear directly from people with disability who actually wear the clothing, and the reason Tommy Adaptive and IZ Adaptive are so popular is because they are well-known brands that also design non-adaptive lines. Here’s a fact that I’ve learned over the last 28 year as a person with a disability—people want to wear brands that they already know and love. They want to be a part of the fashion community, and they want to go into their favourite stores and shop with their friends and family.

Could you name us a few disabled fashion influencers we should know and follow?

Absolutely! Lauren Wasser (@ImpossibleMuse) is a model; Jourdie Zhang (@east.and.west) is not only one of my @Cur8able Cur8tors, he’s also the editor of East and West Style. Independent Spirit Award Nominee and the founder of Sitting Pretty Productions, Lauren Spencer (@itslololove), is also one of my Cur8tors and my styling client. And lastly, model and actor Tamara Mena (@tamaramenaofficial) is a force! 

What are your thoughts on the representation for disabled people in the fashion industry?

First, I believe that we need to go beyond “representation”. Including a model with a disability in a fashion show is not representation, although it does help start a much-needed conversation. True representation is bringing someone like me into boardrooms, design houses, and on sets to help educate on disability.

If you do not understand disability as a culture, you will not provide authentic representation. Then, go beyond “diversity hiring"—don’t hire someone in order to say that you have that one person in your company. Diversity must take place in the room with the powerful gatekeepers. It must happen in marketing, design, supply chains, influencer selections, and so on.

Tell us about your most memorable styling gig.

My most memorable styling gig was earlier this year for my client Lauren Spencer’s award season looks. Every time she was on the red carpet and I was there with her, and sometimes, I had to crawl to stay out of the camera's sight while adjusting her dresses. It reminded me of the days I’d recite my affirmations of being a celebrity stylist exclusively for people with disabilities. So I was living my words, and I  believe that I was destined to do this work.

Aside from being a stylist, you also founded Cur8able—a social enterprise specialising in dressing with disabilities. Tell us more about it.

Cur8able was birthed to dispel negative perceptions towards people with disabilities using fashion styling as the main tool. Cur8able’s two main pillars are: empowering and educating. Empowering people with disabilities to have fun shopping, and dressing with dignity and independence. Educating the fashion industry on how to meet the design and styling needs of people with disabilities.

Cur8able provides styling, content creation, and coaching services. The global pandemic has been catastrophic for so many people (I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge all of the sadness, the loss, and uncertainty), and this has provided the fuel to actually move up my timeline and create the content I want to see in the world. To put out the podcast that I want to hear, to teach the online courses that I’d want to take, and to write the books that I want to read.

You also launched the Disability Fashion Styling System. What are some tips to shop for clothes that are Accessible, Smart, and Fashionable? 

Before I style my clients, it’s important for me to know their goals. I always suggest them to create their own style as opposed to running after every fashion trend. Trends can be incorporated with accessories and in ways that still allow you to be authentic to yourself.

The first advice is to go through your wardrobe and do an honest closet audit. Once you get rid of things you do not wear or love, then you’re able to begin building a wardrobe that works for you. Next, write down the ways you want your wardrobe to serve you. Then, be honest about your dressing challenges. If it takes you longer than a few minutes to do something independently, be honest about it. That way, you can look for silhouettes that make dressing easier. And lastly, take your measurements or get assistance with taking your measurements.

What are some of the biggest challenges in your role?

The fashion industry is still overlooking me and the needs of my clients at the moment. And secondly, the disability community having to overcome ableist ideas that they’ve accepted about themselves that hinder their ability to fully show up in the world as authentically as they desire to. And I know because that was what I had to do.

What do you think is your biggest achievement so far, and what’s your ultimate goal?

I’m so grateful to be able to create a beautiful life that empowers others with disabilities to own their style and branding. My ultimate goal for Cur8able is to put itself out of business. Our content on fashion and disability will be able to shape the industry's inclusivity, and no one will ever need a special place to go to to find more information, because it'll be everywhere.

Once that happens, Cur8able will continue its goal to style, create content, and coach, however it will be, in collaboration with major fashion houses and the media that see the value in targeting the four-trillion dollar demographic of people with disabilities.

What’s next for you?

I’m personally excited about my book coming out next year—I’m working on joining the Motion Picture Costumers 705 union here in Hollywood so that I can work as a consultant for wardrobe departments that dress people with disabilities.

Finally, I’m applying to go back to university to pursue an OTD—a doctorate in occupational therapy. I’ve shared my work with many occupational therapists over the years, and I want to use what I learn to enhance my consultation for brands, wardrobe departments, clients and coaching.