disability styling expert stephanie thomas
Photography by Benjo Arwas.

How Disability Styling Expert Stephanie Thomas is Using Fashion as a Form of Advocacy

Here's what you need to know about her pioneering career and the brands she loves right now.

Los Angeles-based disability styling expert Stephanie Thomas has built a career around bringing style inclusivity to a worldwide audience. “In 2006, I went to a pet store and saw a Burberry-inspired trench coat for dogs,” she says. “I was just annoyed at that point. If I had a dog, I would have more clothing options for it than I would have if I were the parent of a child who has a seated body type and uses a wheelchair for mobility.”

In 1992, Thomas began researching clothing and retail trends for people with disabilities. This eventually led to her creating the Disability Fashion Styling System, a three-point guide that allows the differently abled to better understand how to approach dressing while learning more about the brands, innovations and people bringing fashion to those with largely underserved needs. She also founded her media platform, Cur8able, in 2015 and wrote a textbook titled Fitting In: The Social Implications of Fashion and Dressing With Disabilities. “Fashion is a powerful tool in my tool box to fight discrimination against people with disabilities and to challenge and educate people who probably unknowingly have ableist views,” she says.

Though Thomas, who is a congenital amputee, has given a TEDx Talk on the subject of her work and was included on the Business of Fashion’s list of the top 500 people shaping the industry last year, she emphasizes that there’s still much to be done when it comes to bridging the divide between the ideals that the fashion world purports to champion and the realities that differently abled people face every day. “We have ramp access to stores and wheelchair-accessible fitting rooms, but we don’t have any retail real estate dedicated to seated body types,” she says. “It’s still an issue in 2020.”

Thomas’s devotion to her clients (including influencer Lauren “Lolo” Spencer and actor Tamara Mena) and passion run deep—so deep that she went back to school to earn a graduate degree in fashion journalism from the Academy of Art University in California. “I wanted to know how to respectfully approach this topic and to really be a liaison between where I felt the fashion industry was and continued to be and where I knew it needed to go in order to be more inclusive,” she says.

Her belief in the industry’s potential to delight and empower all people is genuine; Thomas recalls “consuming” magazine titles like Vogue, Ebony and Essence at an early age. “I’m always drawn to forms of minimalism and tailored looks,” she says about her style preferences. “I don’t like the look to overpower the person; I like the person to be able to carry the look. When that happens, people see and admire the look, but it really draws the eye to the person.”

What were your earliest defining style inspirations?

Marcia Brady’s mini-dresses and miniskirts. And my mom; I remember her really minimalistic, elegant and effortless style. It never jockeyed for attention, and it never took away from her beauty.

If you could go back to live in one era because of its fashion, what would it be?

That’s a loaded question for a Black woman in America. I would not live in another era, but I really love the Harlem Renaissance; I’m all about the whole creative vibe around it. That would be my era if all of the dis- crimination associated with that time period wasn’t there…. But you know what? I have to change that because if that discrimination wasn’t there, it wouldn’t have been what it was. You can’t take part of it and leave the rest. What I love about it is that a lot of people had to make do with what they had. And some of the looks that came out of that were just mind-blowing.

How do you think fashion plays a part in self-expression?

To me, fashion is self-expression. You don’t have to be a fashionista to let someone know how you feel about something. And that can be seen today in message tees, as part of political protest and as part of how you feel about yourself. When I think about how we’ve moved into body positivity and how people have started to challenge the old norms of what beauty is, I think that self-expression and the way people wear their clothes—and what clothing they choose to wear—are important. It’s a power statement.

What designers do you admire the most right now?

I really love what’s happening with Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss and Virgil Abloh at Off-White. I love the fact that what they’re doing is a departure from what many in mainstream fashion think it means to be fashionable; it also represents culture in a way that has been missing for a long time. I also love Christie Brown, Universal Standard, Jermaine Bleu, A.L.C. and Victoria Beckham. Some of the universal-design and adaptive brands I’m watching are Chiara Boni La Petite Robe, So Yes, Tommy Adaptive, Seven7, Able and Alleles Design Studio.

What’s your most treasured fashion item?

Shoes that are sexy and kind of strappy but have a closed toe with a slight point to make my legs look gorgeous but offer the support I need.

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