Fashion School alumna Stephanie Thomas has dedicated almost three decades of her life to empowering and educating people with disabilities through fashion—both as a disability stylist and as the founder of Cur8able, a disability fashion lifestyle website.
Both before and since graduating from Academy of Art University’s School of Fashion in 2013, Thomas developed a philosophy that revolves around three key principles: accessibility, safety and fashion.
“Is it easy to take on and off? Is it medically safe?” Thomas says, citing the Disability Fashion Styling system she developed in 2004. “That means it’s good for the person’s body type [and] their lifestyle, and it also has to be something they absolutely love.”
Putting Knowledge Into Practice…and Getting Noticed
As a congenital amputee, Thomas has personally experienced difficulties with dressing, as well as being acutely aware of the lack of visibility in fashion for people with disabilities. In recent years, however, it seems her efforts are starting to pay off. In 2019, Thomas was featured by sites and publications such as The Guardian, Vox, People and Paper, and was named to the Business of Fashion 500, which identifies individuals shaping the industry.
“I want there to be a day where there is no need for disability fashion stylists,” says Thomas, an MFA graduate in fashion journalism and a 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient from the fashion school. “And that’s because all stylists are now disability fashion stylists. They understand body types with disabilities: there is clothing design for disabilities. I want to put myself and this part of my work out of business.”
Recently, she participated in the “#Share TheMicNow” campaign, where 50 Black female activists, celebrities and entrepreneurs took over the Instagram handles of A-list celebrity White women. Taking over actress Selma Blair’s Instagram, Thomas was among notable Black women such as Angelica Ross, Elaine Welteroth, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, Rachel Cargle and Yvette Noel-Schure.
“As a Black woman with a disability,” Thomas said during the live event on June 10, 2020, “I have a story to tell that you pretty much can’t see.”
High Profile Lessons
Thomas was approached to participate in the event by Vox political correspondent Liz Plank, who had interviewed Thomas a year before.
“I got something from her one day, and she’s like, ‘You are a badass and I would love to interview you,’” says Thomas. “And I was like ‘Okay, when someone starts out like that, let me check her out!’”
The effects of her participation in the event, Thomas notes, have been significant and lasting.
“#ShareTheMicNow changed my life in that it’s gotten me a few thousand more followers, which is great, because hopefully people will spread the news about dressing with disabilities. But it’s also given me the courage to start creating, to actually take Cur8able to where I’m going to be putting on and creating COVID-friendly productions…. I spend a lot of time bringing other people’s visions to life, but I want to bring to life my own vision of what I’m not seeing out here.”
As a stylist, Thomas has certainly felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning with exploring personal issues.
“The first opportunity COVID-19 provided was for me to slow down and to focus on my own values and…mastering the idea of not being able to change others, but definitely living according to my own worldview.”
Subsequent steps were professional, Thomas observes. “I put together a document that I give out to all of my personal styling clients and to all of the productions I work with. I require social distancing, but if I’m in an environment where we’re not socially distanced, we need to have masks. That’s been a major change because it’s me having to say, “I take this pandemic seriously and anyone that’s going to work with me, no matter what their personal views are, they’re going to have to wear the mask.
“Even if we don’t agree on what the pandemic is, there’s a certain thing as professional decorum, and if you don’t think enough of me to respect my perspective as I’m respecting yours, then we can’t roll. It’s just that simple.”
Advocating for “ME”
Me being me is advocacy! But here’s the beauty of it: You being you is also advocacy. Everyone has a voice and that’s really the exciting, beautiful part of being who we are.Stephanie Thomas
“My family never treated me like I had a disability—and there is nothing wrong if they did—but I never grew up hearing any apologetic language like ‘special needs’ or there was never this apologetic tone or idea of ‘Let’s coddle her.’ My brother always said, ‘Don’t be the victim, you’re not a victim.’ And so, I was always treated in a way that encouraged me to use my voice.”
As for her advice for others seeking to use their voices, Thomas once again encourages looking deep within oneself.
“You’ve got to know the ‘why’ behind the ‘what,’” she maintains—because that will show the path forward. “My ‘why’ is always [about] destroying negative perceptions of people with disabilities. I knew I was a storyteller, and fashion styling is a form of storytelling.
“It took me years to figure out how to tell this story in a way that would resonate with the zeitgeist of the time. A lot of people that were doing the same work I’m doing 20 years ago write me today and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, you kept going.’
“I [think], ‘What else am I going to do? The problem isn’t solved!’
“So that’s the last thing: Keep going. Even if you don’t know what to do, let the ‘why’ motivate your movement. And don’t think you need to have it all figured out to keep going.
“I don’t want to have to convince people that my life—and the lives of people like me—has value. I want equity. I want access. I need us to get to a point in society where you can actually look at me and see me and understand that I’m not valuable because of degrees or work.
“I’m intrinsically valuable because I’m here.”
Original article by Nina Tabios of Academy Art U News, https://artunews.com/
All images courtesy of Stephanie Thomas