By Heather McIlvaine from Inside Retail
Online adaptive fashion label Christina Stephens has offered clothing that is both stylish and easy-to-wear for men and women with disabilities since launching two years ago. But now, for the first time, that clothing will be designed by someone with first-hand knowledge of customers’ needs: quadriplegic designer Carol Taylor.
Taylor, who uses a wheelchair, has come on board as a partner in the business, production manager and lead designer. To her knowledge, she is the only quadriplegic fashion designer in the world.
“I don’t have any formal qualifications as a designer, but I have got 20 years’ lived experience of designing for myself, and working around the issues that someone with disability encounters,” she told Inside Retail.
“I know that sitting on a bunch of fabric could really put me in harm’s way and give me a life-threatening pressure sore. I personally know of someone who got a pressure sore and ended up in bed for two years. These are the things that perhaps the able-bodied community are not aware of.”
Taylor was in the process of launching her own fashion label when Christina Stephens’ founder Jessie Sadler approached her with the idea of joining forces, rather than competing.
Beyond her understanding of the design changes that need to be made for clothing to be safe and comfortable to wear in a wheelchair, Taylor also brings a level of credibility to the brand.
“It gives us immense credibility and validation having someone with the background that Carol has come to the leadership table and take over the design,” Sadler, who is able bodied, told Inside Retail.
“That lived experience is priceless, and from a really black and white commercial perspective, it sets us apart from anyone else that’s out there.”
Lost in the wilderness of disability attire
Clothing options for people with disabilities have traditionally been limited to loose items like tracksuits that are easy to take on and off, with little thought for personal taste or style. For someone like Taylor, who believes that what you wear reflects your identity, this can be demoralising.
“I spent years after my injury in the wilderness of what I call disability attire. I lost myself in there,” she said.
“I tried to go shopping, and it was because of that frustration – and indeed, it caused quite a bit of depression – I started to design my own clothing.”
Things have improved in recent years, with a handful of high-profile retailers now offering adaptive fashion ranges, and new brands and online marketplaces catering to people with disabilities.
Tommy Hilfiger’s launch of a line of inclusive clothing in 2018, including shirts and pants with magnetic snaps and velcro, rather than buttons and zippers, brought much-needed attention to the space. And since then, the likes of Nike and Converse have created shoes that are easy to slip on and off, and online marketplaces such as Everyhuman and Averee have cropped up, offering a range of adaptive fashion brands and products. Last year, The Iconic started selling Christina Stephens clothing on its site.
“To see what’s happening – it’s a revolution and I want to be part of it,” Taylor said.
Still a long way to go
“It’s coming along, but there’s a long way to go,” said Sadler.
“We need to see department stores pick [adaptive fashion] up like they did with maternity clothes and plus-size. I think that will change the whole experience around shopping and fashion for our customers. They’ll be able to go and have lunch with their girlfriends and go shopping and touch and feel and try on clothes in accessible change rooms with trained staff.”
Cost can be a barrier, with inputs like magnetic snaps more expensive than buttons, and there is still a lack of understanding of the issue, with few people with disabilities working in the fashion industry. Notably, Tommy Hilfiger was inspired to make adaptive fashion by his children, who are on the autism spectrum.
However, Taylor is hopeful the commercial opportunity will drive more brands to create cool and stylish clothing that can be worn by people with disabilities.
“The disability community seems to have gotten a lot more vocal about this issue,” she said.
“I think perhaps the mainstream fashion industry has not been paying attention [to the demand], and maybe they need to beat over the head a little bit to the point where they realise, ‘Hang on a minute, there’s a market here’.”
New era for Christina Stephens
Taylor joins Christina Stephens at an exciting time for the brand, which will be showing its first ever collection at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week next month as part of the event’s inaugural adaptive fashion runway.
“We’re showcasing some very different styles and looks than what customers have previously seen from us,” Sadler said. “After that, we’ll be getting those garments into production.”
While Christina Stephens will continue to offer a basics collection, it is moving towards a more elevated, sexy, colourful presence in the market, thanks in large part to Taylor’s input.
As she notes, adaptive fashion is about “more than just magnets”.
“I was in a group meeting once with a young quadriplegic male who was soon to be married, and the boys were giving him a hard time about the wedding night coming up. All of a sudden, he said, ‘I will never know what it’s like to unwrap my bride.’ You could hear a pin drop, and that was a lightbulb moment for me,” Taylor recalled.
“These are the sorts of things you learn as someone with a disability that I hope to bring to the design table.”