Inside Retail by Lisa Cox

‘Unexpected’, ‘unbelievable’ and ‘unreal’ were all words I heard to describe the Adaptive Clothing Collective at this year’s Afterpay Australian Fashion Week (AAFW). It was clear that founder Jessie Sadler and lead designer Carol Taylor had achieved one of the things they set out to do with this new collection for Australia’s first inclusive fashion label, Christina Stephens: to dispel the myth that clothing adapted for people with disabilities could not be fashionable, stylish, glamorous, luxurious and even a little sexy.

Christina Stephens appeared alongside JAM the label in Australia’s first runway featuring clothes designed specifically for people with disabilities. I was both privileged and honoured to be one of the models for Christina Stephens and the energy in the room that day was palpable. 

You’d think the inclusion of disability for the first time in Australian Fashion Week history last year was a momentous achievement that couldn’t be topped but this year the Adaptive Clothing Collective made its grand debut to a sold-out room of tears and cheers.

A key difference of the Christina Stephens label that I wore was that it had been designed by someone with significant lived-experience of disability. Taylor is the world’s first quadriplegic fashion designer and truly understands the complexities of disability. She is also a self-confessed fashion addict and hasn’t let disability stop her from appreciating style.

Nothing about us without us

I cannot stress how crucial it is to any brand or business looking to diversify to invite someone to the table with lived experience. I must credit AAFW for doing this. When they knew that they wanted to build diversity and inclusion into a long-term strategy for AAFW, I was brought on as one of two disability consultants.

While being on the AAFW runway was fun, it’s the far less glamorous work behind-the-scenes, in Zoom meetings with no make-up, messy hair and zero fancy lighting that I love most. That’s where I’ve seen some impactful decisions made and some important changes being discussed over the last two years.

In those meetings, I see how what happens on the runway translates into change at the community level for people with a disability. That’s when you appreciate the power of fashion and industries like it to shape pop culture and public attitudes about disability. 

At the end of last year’s event, I said that I couldn’t wait to see what AAFW had in store for next year. Fashion Week certainly didn’t disappoint and now I can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2023.

Hint: It’s going to be even bigger and better again!

In an article I wrote for Refinery 29, I stated that, “It shouldn’t be newsworthy that there is a designer with disabilities or clothes for people with disabilities but for now it must be celebrated.”

This was an adaptation of a quote that I had used about myself many times in years past. These days, a model with disabilities is a little more commonplace (yes, we still have a long way to go). But back when I was doing runway shows in my wheelchair years ago, the media would make a huge fuss about it. I would often say that it shouldn’t be a big deal that there is someone here with disabilities, given that about 20 per cent of the population identifies as disabled.

I’m thrilled that my disability and the disability of the other models in shows with me is no longer a big deal. We are just blending in a bit better, as I had hoped (even if my turning circle is a little wider).

Taylor is an incredible fashion designer and artist, and an award-winning lawyer, wife, mother and friend who also has a disability. After the show, we shared a glass of champagne, as we’ve done many times, and laughed together at all the times we had both been told not to pursue what we were doing.

As I’ve explained in a previous article for Inside Retail, I acquired my disabilities and even though I am no longer walking, I’m still shopping and still loving fashion. The assumption people with disabilities have no interest in fashion could not be further from the truth. Of course many of us have other ‘more serious’ disability things happening at the same time but that’s no reason not to love fashion. It’s a form of expression, identity, individuality, and so much more. All should have access to that joy.

For me and many others who require functional fashion, the Adaptive Clothing Collective meant so much. Not everyone will understand this and to some it may sound melodramatic but when the independence to do something as simple as dress yourself is taken away and your only clothing options look like hospital gowns, it’s debilitating.

The Adaptive Clothing Collective was like a nod from the Australian fashion industry that said: “We see you.”

As Taylor said, “Fashion affects our core sense of identity, confidence, and the way the outside world treats us. The moment I started to wear colour and find, create and make clothing to feel like the person I was pre-injury, it was cathartic. It changed me – and put me on the road to good mental health. That’s how powerful clothing is.” 

Why this was so important

For far too long, the fashion industry has essentially handed people with disabilities an oversized grey tracksuit and said, “This is all you’re worth to us and this is all you’ll get, so wear it and just put up with it.” But thanks to some incredible work of industry leaders who recognised the need for change and their role in making bold decisions over the last two years, here we are today.

The decision to extend diversity and inclusion beyond their more palatable forms has certainly paid off for Afterpay and AAFW. The Adaptive Clothing Collective has received an enormous amount of positive international media coverage and received a standing ovation. I was one of the first models off the runway, so I didn’t get to see it, but my beautiful sister, who had flown in to watch the event, captured it on video for me.

I’m going to take a guess that this is also the first time AAFW has had someone from the Australian Human Rights Commission – disability discrimination commissioner Dr Ben Gauntlett – at the event.

AAFW is seeing the value of people with disabilities and recognising the need for stylish, colourful, cheeky, fun fashion that is adaptive and practical. There are many people with disabilities who want to make a statement with their choice of attire, that have a particular style or taste but can’t express it simply because mainstream fashion brands don’t offer adaptive lines. A study published by Diverseability  magazine found that “discretionary income for working-age people with disabilities is about $21 billion” in the US. 

The power of popular culture combined with the undeniable force of industries like fashion, retail and those sectors they influence or support cannot be overstated. Together they shape social attitudes, shift public perception and either break down or continue to legitimise stereotypes about disability.  

Moving forward – the lessons for retailers

The fashion and retail industry can take so many learnings from the successes of this year’s inclusion of the Adaptive Clothing Collective. Most importantly, it’s not just a quick add-on for headlines that will soon be gone. Having worked behind the scenes with the truly dedicated and committed team at AAFW, I guarantee there are people there who are genuinely dedicated and committed to diversity and inclusion well into the future.     

Now that we have experienced the first-ever adaptive fashion runway, we can definitely take a look at what needs to be done to continue the momentum and see real change in the fashion industry. 

This runway has brought us exciting new designs by Australian adaptive clothing labels and no doubt there are many more to come. These adaptive fashion designs don’t resemble hospital gowns and they’re not unisex on-size-fits-all. They’re on-trend styles and colours you would see in a mainstream department store window, but have been designed with specific disabilities in mind.  

Accessibility and distribution of adaptive fashion is another crucial piece of the puzzle that we can build on from the success of the 2022 Adaptive Clothing Collective. Large retailers need to support adaptive fashion brands like Christina Stephens and expand the category by providing adaptive collections, retail facilities and staff training to support adaptive clothing labels and their customers. 

Retailers like The Iconic must be commended for realising the social and economic benefits of including adaptive fashion in their online retail store. It would be wonderful to see noteworthy retailers like David Jones, Myer, and others in this category join the fashion revolution.

May 17, 2022 — Jessie Sadler