Christina Stephens' Clare Puki discusses the top three things to consider when building an inclusive fashion label.

Building any business from the ground up is hard.

There’s capital investment, logistics, branding, networking, product sourcing and development, suppliers, staff, overheads… the list is endless. And this is just for mainstream retailers.

But add in the fact that you service an emerging market, where there’s limited precedent and you find yourself pioneering your way through daily, and you’ve got yourself a challenge!

Adaptive, inclusive fashion label Christina Stephens has been navigating this territory for a little over 12 months now, and has uncovered some notable differences between building a mainstream label vs an inclusive fashion label.

1. Your building blocks need to be much stronger

Creating a network in an emerging industry requires gumption, thinking outside the box, and sometimes, sheer audacity.

Christina Stephens founder Jessie Sadler (pictured) says sometimes, you’ve just got to lean in and take the plunge.

"It’s not uncommon for me to have an idea, pick up the phone, and talk it through with my team or trusted advisors, just to make sure I’m on the right track before we go too far down a rabbit hole," she said.

"I’ve been known to pick up the phone and cold call a supplier, or a new customer, just to hear about their experience, and listen to ways in which we can make their experience better. 

"With limited front-runners before us, there’s a certain amount of ‘making it up as we go’, tempered with a lot of research and leaning into our intuition," she said. 

Reaching out to people for advice has been the number one strategy Christina Stephens has adopted to ensure they ‘get it right’ from the start.

Before the label launched, they held a number of focus groups and conducted in-depth interviews with the women they were looking to serve.

"It’s got to work, as well as looking good. This was important to us to get right," Sadler said.

"It also led us to building an avatar in a wheelchair to test patterns before they are made - something that has saved us a lot of time and money in the production process."

The label has faced challenges in building out their distribution network too.

Until recently, Christina Stephens has solely sought wholesale and drop shipping opportunities from niche partners. Now its looking at the next evolution in the brand.

The business recently secured an iconic Australian retailer, which they’re hoping will continue to open the doors to other retailers.

2. The learning process is longer

"My background is in energy, so starting an adaptive fashion label was a big learning curve for me," Sadler said.

"I made my fair share of mistakes, particularly around learning the correct language to use and when. But luckily I have a wonderful network of women with disabilities to support and educate the team and I.

"This has been crucial to get right - it’s our mission to change the face of adaptive clothing in Australia, by creating pieces that give women living with disabilities and changing bodies a choice. A choice in fashion, and a voice to be heard and included.

"And while we’re still learning ourselves, our challenge has been to educate an entire market in the process," she said. 

One big learning in the adaptive market is understanding the intricacies of NDIS, NDIA Managed Funds and HCP - all very different payment methods to mainstream fashion portals.

Knowing how these revenue streams work, how to integrate them into the platform, and ensure it’s a smooth user journey, has been a challenge to get right.

Then there are physical challenges to consider, like sizing differences between adaptive and mainstream fashion.

For instance, adaptive clothing often has a longer leg length, to accommodate pants riding up for people in wheelchairs. Plus, there are additional measures to consider when arranging photoshoots - is the location wheelchair accessible, the difficulty in sourcing models with disabilities, and training the crew about language and timing.

Lisa Cox - model, disability advocate and consultant

3. Being extra intentional

While all start-ups begin with a sense of intention, being an adaptive and inclusive clothing label means the company has an extra layer of intentionality on every decision it makes.

Not only are clothes designed to be beautiful, but they must be designed with purpose and functionality in mind, yet still compete in the same arena as mainstream.

Christina Stephens also needs to take extra consideration of its target audience and design for them, not the stereotypical size six, 'perfect' hourglass figure (is that even still a thing?). Something that their customers have been seeking for a long time.

But there are some similarities to mainstream fashion

For instance, knowing your customers intimately - their demographics, their favourite brands, what their coffee order is. Then designing your user experience to compliment your ideal customer.

For Christina Stephens, this meant starting broad and niching down to women who are truly aligned with the CS values.

It also meant approaching non-mainstream media, such as Paraquad, Medirecruit and other NDIS associated media sources to really hone in and reach the women who need adaptive clothing the most.

And finally, like any authentic brand, making sure everything that is produced is aligned with the Christina Stephens values, remains high on the priority list.

"Sustainability is one of the top three company values at Christina Stephens, so making sure we balance the cost to the environment, versus the cost to the customer, is something every sustainably conscious company needs to consider," Sadler said.

"The only additional consideration we have is to make sure our packaging is easy to open for our customers with muscular difficulties," she said. 

And at the end of the day, making your product more accessible, more desirable, and easier to access, is what good retail is all about!



June 17, 2021 — Clare Puki