The Fashion Industry Is Ableist, and Stylist Stephanie Thomas Created a System to Change That
"I know the power of including authentic voices and seeing people that look like you in the media," says stylist Stephanie Thomas. She is a congenital amputee who was born missing digits on her right hand and feet who has been styling actors and influencers with disabilities for over 13 years. Her work has been seen everywhere from Kohl's adaptive clothing launch to Nike campaigns.
Thomas got involved in fashion in 1992, only two years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed. In the years since she has made her mission to not only eradicate negative perceptions of people with disabilities through styling but to also normalize adaptive technology. Thomas herself has difficulty with buttons and certain clasps.
"That's where it all started for me," she tells InStyle. "I wanted to make solutions for people." Ten years later, she developed a Disability Fashion Styling System, which revolves around three pillars: Accessibility (easy to put on and take off), smart for your health (medically safe), and fashionable (loved by the wearer, works for their lifestyle and body type).
The system is part of a growing movement of fashion people paving the way for disabled folks in an industry built on rampant ableism. "[Styling] started as a hobby and became something that I just could not stop thinking about," says Thomas.
In the United States, 61 million adults live with a disability according to the CDC, which is one in four adults. But models and celebrities with disabilities rarely appear on the pages of magazines or in high fashion campaigns. Additionally, fashion stores aren't typically built with accessibility in mind, and adaptable clothing is still an afterthought; models continue to be expected to "walk" down the runway.
Recently, however, attitudes have been shifting. Ellie Goldstein, for example, who lives with Down syndrome, recently appeared on the covers of Allure, Glamour, and Elle, and starred in a Gucci campaign, while other models with disabilities, like Aaron Phillip and Jillian Mercado, continue to rise through the ranks. These are small steps forward, and while Thomas is happy to see this evolution, she wants people to stop focusing on anyone's disability as their only attribute. She just wants to be accommodated, and for disabilities to be normalized and accepted. Ignoring that she is disabled and that she has different needs is not the solution, she says.
InStyle sat down with Thomas to discuss her styling system, her feelings on the state of adaptive fashion and disability representation, and her favorite part of her job.
InStyle: What is your process for working with clients?
Thomas: I'm very particular about the people I work with. Styling is co-creation and we have to be able to be on the same page. They have to trust me. I have to trust them. I like to have a conversation. I usually like to lead by listening because that's how I'm going to learn about people. And then the next step of that conversation, if I feel like I can really help them, is to do just that. Right now I am hyper-focused on actors, influencers, and people in the entertainment industry, because that's the fastest way that I can help shift culture.
After that, we just start working like any other stylist would. They let me know when they have events going on and I'm like, 'Let's plan for it. Let's be strategic. Let's do this as if every time someone sees you, it's an opportunity.' And I think the thing that is different about what I do is I may be more thoughtful about the clothing that I'm selecting because I want to make sure that it provides the opportunity for them to dress with as much dignity and independence as possible.
What does your styling system entail?
[When I started] I didn't even know I was a stylist. After a decade of talking to people with disabilities and asking them about their clothing and how they got dressed, and knowing my personal experience — that's what led me [ask brands], 'Is your clothing accessible, smart, fashionable?' And that was my first trademark. It wasn't a "disability fashion styling" system. [The word "disability"] is just something that I've added lately because people hate the word. So I thought I'd put it in my title. I thought I'd call my system that because people don't like the word and I want them to face the freaking word.
I use my styling system to empower people. I don't use my styling system to apologize for the disabled body. I don't use my styling system to get clout. The reality is, until the fashion industry deals with its ableism, I am saying, "Here's my disability fashion styling system that's going to help you bridge the gap between where the fashion industry is and where they must inevitably go to be more inclusive."
I don't mean putting people with disabilities on your Instagram, that is not inclusive. Putting them in one ad and then sending out a press release is not inclusive. What I provide as a stylist here in Hollywood is I've said, 'You know what? People with disabilities are going to become more dominant in this industry.'
One message I want to get across is that you don't have to be someone that ambulates independently without a wheelchair to have style. You can be someone who uses a crutch, a cane, or a wheelchair that basically leans back all the time and still express yourself with fashion. For people with disabilities, clothing can be assistive technology. It can make their lives easier.
What's your favorite part of your job?
Watching the light bulb come on in my client's eyes, watching them put a shoe on for the first time, or what really just makes me feel incredible is when they didn't think that they could do something. And I introduce them to a different silhouette that allows them to wear that thing that they love.
What are your feelings on the shifts that have taken place recently with representation of disabilities? What's the line between tokenization and representation?
I know the power of including authentic voices and seeing people that look like you in the media. So my first thought is, I'm glad to see it. The thing that makes me go "oh" is when it feels like inspiration porn, when it feels like we're going to put this person on the cover because this is our attempt at being inclusive.
The first thing that I do is I flip through the rest of the magazine. I look through the history of their magazines. Do you have women with disabilities on your masthead? Do you have people with disabilities who represent this idea? I look not only at the cover. I delve deeper in order to see what's happening. But if it's this one-off, or you see it every now and then, it's still helping culture because it's doing something.
What do you think of the state of the fashion industry and its approach to inclusion?
The industry is built on the idea of exclusivity and people are often not sincere about inclusivity. Anyone that thinks it's not exclusive is fooling themselves. I don't hate the industry. I love it for what I think it can help people with. I see fashion as something like assistive technology, but at the same time, I'm done asking for approval. I'm done asking for people to see me. I'm done asking for the things that I want to see in the world. I'm just going to do it. The reason I don't feel angry all the time is because people can only be who they are. I can only express ideas I've been exposed to.
We don't teach disability whatsoever. We don't learn about it in school other than the special program here, or, a television program. I really go out of my way to approach my work through the social model of disability, meaning that the problem is not disability, it's the barriers created by ableism. That is the real problem.
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