Life & Business

Life & Business: Stephanie Thomas

by Kayla Whaley

As a stylist who focuses on fashion for people with disabilities, Stephanie Thomas has had to carve her own path. When she first began exploring the topic in the early 1990s, she found not only a lack of clothing options, but also a lack of awareness about the necessity of fashion aimed at those with disabilities. Since then, it’s been her mission to “challenge people’s negative perceptions of dressing with disabilities.”

Founder and editor-in-chief of Cur8able (a site dedicated to curating the best in disability fashion), and a fashion instructor at the Art Institute of California, Stephanie has become a “disability fashion thought-leader.” In addition to her teaching and editing, she is a stylist for paralympians, actors, and public figures with disabilities. She’ll be branching out even further soon, offering seminars to the general public. “Just as people without disabilities benefit from understanding basic styling,” so do those with disabilities, and Stephanie intends to use her decades of knowledge to provide specialized styling tips to that underserved audience.

Being a trailblazer comes with its own unique challenges — “everything is unforseen, because [the road] doesn’t exist”— but Stephanie’s passion and trust in herself are her greatest weapons. Of course, one can’t always rise to the challenge, but when that happens, “it’s not so much a failure as a tool to refocus.” That perspective allows her to take risks, to follow her vision, and to work toward a more inclusive fashion industry — and world. —Kayla

Photographs by Cur8able

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and that it was what you wanted to do?

It was 23 years ago while participating in a Miss America Preliminary Pageant. I was representing my college in the pageant and I needed a platform — a cause to rally behind and make a difference with. My coach noticed that I rarely buttoned my sleeves (I’m missing a thumb on my right hand), so she suggested I investigate clothing for people with disabilities. That is where it all began.

Since then, I’ve followed clothing trends for people with disabilities on a regular basis. While working as an on-air radio personality I created a disability fashion awareness campaign, and as a part of this campaign I limited my wardrobe to PJs for an entire year to demonstrate the lack of clothing options people with disabilities have when they go into stores. After the campaign, I went back to school to learn as much as I could about the fashion industry and how it works.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

Trust yourself. I wanted to carve a unique, nonacademic area of thought-leadership for adaptive clothing, and over the years people did not really know how to respond. However, within the last three years, living in Los Angeles, when I say I am a fashion stylist for actors and paralympians with disabilities people actually seem to get it… a bit.

What principles underpin and motivate your work?

The fact that pet owners have more in-store clothing options designed for their pets’ bodies than a person with a seated body has. The ADA turns 26 this year, and there is now wheelchair accessibility into stores, but there is still no retail real estate dedicated to clothing designed for the person with a seated body type.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

No doubt, selling my home and everything I owned and moving to Los Angeles three years ago. It has been an experience, but it is an experience I would not trade for the world. I did the right thing.

What do you do to refill your creative well?

Nothing. Literally. I have to be still and do nothing, and then I am able to hear my next move.

How do you define both professional and creative success? Are they one and the same, or do you have different goalposts for each?

I am already successful because I had the courage to follow my passion. Yes, they are the same: being courageous, having integrity, being true to who you are. I am going to make mistakes, but that does not define my character as a human being. I am learning to manage my expectations of others and provide the necessary information to help manage the expectations others have of me.

What unforeseen challenges did you encounter when starting your business, and how did you deal with them?

This is not a question I can answer. As a trailblazer, there is no road. Everything is unforeseen, because it doesn’t exist.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. Do you like social media? Do you want to live a public life? Even small business owners have to engage in order to compete, so seriously consider your answer to this question. I am still struggling with this.

2. Can you say “yes” to saying “no” most of the time? I just botched a photo shoot because I should have said “no” from the beginning. Whenever I don’t have the time to be still, plan, and really prep, things always go wrong to remind me to just say no. There will always be another chance to do something, so focus, focus, focus.

3. Can you hear “no” and not take it personally? I’m pretty good at this one. I’ve been so blessed to have a long career as a voice actor (18 years), so I audition all the time, but only the jobs that are for me are the jobs I get. Now when I hear “no,” if it’s something I really wanted, I give myself an hour or a day (depending on how bad I wanted it) to pout, then I move on. I am fully convinced that what is for me is for me, and no one can take what GOD has for me away.

If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?

Sleep and play! Life is short and although I love my work, I am now learning to work to live.

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  • As someone who has a disability, all I can say is THANK YOU STEPHANIE!

    I am lucky to have all my limbs, but need a cane and have hand / wrist problems also.

    It’s the little things that make a huge difference. For example — when you’re using a cane, you essentially only have one functional hand, so I use cross-body bags that I don’t have to hold onto, etc.

    To have a designer understand these things is so refreshing. Then to go the next step and actually make it stylish is life-changing.

  • A beautiful, intelligent woman — inside and out. This has been one of my favorite interviews so far, for both the questions and the answers. Best wishes Stephanie, and thank you for showing what it means to really live a meaningful life in a real way.

  • Good on her! At this point, I just want dressy sports shoes. After a car bit off my foot years back, I gave up on heels. Somehow, formal wear just doesn’t have the same effect with florescent running shoes.

  • This is great to read. I have mild cerebral palsy, and I’ve lived an exciting life in spite of it. But there are constant fashion issues. High heels are absolutely out, I can’t button one sleeve by myself, and so on. I’m so glad someone is recognizing this problem!

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