When you stand up, what’s your first instinct? Usually, it is to adjust your clothing from sitting. But imagine how difficult that would be if you’re wheelchair-bound, or if you could only walk with assistance from a device that takes both hands to manipulate? For people without a physical disability, these clothing challenges might never come to mind. For those who have various disabilities, these struggles are their reality. Stephanie Thomas, a graduate of Academy of Art University, aims to design clothing for those who struggle to find clothing designed with their needs in mind.
Fashion design for those with disabilities has become a hot topic in recent years, and the need is overwhelming. Consider these facts:
- As of 2016, 6% of the United States population lives with a disability. That’s between 40 and 50 million people.
- Currently, there are only five stores worldwide with clothing available that is specifically tailored for people with disabilities.
Challenging the World of Disabilities
Academy of Art University alumnus Stephanie Thomas (MFA 2013, Fashion Journalism) was born missing a thumb and several toes. Although this is typically considered a “non-severe” disability, doctors said Stephanie would never walk properly or dance. Of course, for those who know her, this was only a stimulus to push forward and overcome any obstacles.
And she did, not only walking, but dancing and cheering as a professional cheerleader for the Chicago Bulls. True to form, Stephanie was also the first in her family to go to college, and now holds a BA in Business Administration & Marketing from Sullivan University, an MA in Communications from Regent University, and an MA in Fashion Journalism from Academy of Art University. She also teaches as an adjunct professor at the Academy.
To Stephanie, her disability was something dealt with and largely ignored. But, when she was challenged about why she never buttoned her left cuff by a pageant coach while competing to earn money for college in 1993 (she couldn’t, due to the fact that she has no right thumb), her eyes were opened to a whole new world of disabled people and the clothing challenges they face.
How the Academy of Art University Equipped Her to Succeed
Before attending Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Stephanie was “floundering like a fish that accidentally jumped out of its bowl.” She struggled to communicate her passion for creating fashion for the disabled in a way that made sense and touched people. It was at the Academy that Stephanie formulated a way to explain her passion and work. “I finally got the tools—and actually the idea of taking my work and describing myself as a stylist—that’s all Academy of Art,” she said.
The School of Fashion’s Journalism program provided the necessary training that enabled her to develop the framework for her passion. With those new tools, she was ready to face the challenge of disability fashion styling and take her passion to the larger fashion industry. “I had to learn how to tell my story,” said Stephanie. She learned to tell her story so well that she was invited to give a TED talk, which she did at TEDxYYC in September 2016.
During this onstage presentation, Stephanie describes herself as “an undercover agent living in two worlds.” Her limited disability enables her to “see life from both sides.” As an advocate and active designer of clothing for the disabled, she explains how the Disability Fashion Styling System (DFSS) empowers people with disabilities to dress with dignity and self-reliance.
Fulfilling her Passion
Stephanie took her ideas and suggestions to retailers and giants in the fashion world. She introduced them to the concept of the DFSS litmus test for clothing that is tailored for people with disabilities. Such clothing must be:
- Accessible (easy to put on / take off)
- Smart (medically safe)
- Fashionable (loved by the wearer)
Talks with merchandisers led nowhere, because at the time, disabled people with clothing challenges were not viewed as a significant market. Undeterred, Stephanie started her own company, called Cur8able. Described as a “disability fashion lifestyle hub,” her company “provides an inspirational and empowering space for those with disabilities or physical challenges” and promotes ‘adaptable fashion‘ for those living with disabilities.
How does Stephanie want to be remembered? She says, “I want them to say, ‘Wow, she used fashion as a tool to empower people with disabilities, so that people are able to see them; people will not see their deficiencies, but eye to eye as equals.’”