Cur8able Founder on Fashion Styling for People with Disabilities

Stephanie Thomas is a disability fashion styling expert, and Founder and CEO of Cur8able, a B2B business dedicated to dressing with disabilities. Stephanie was also the keynote speaker at the Women in Agile session at Agile2019 in Washington D.C.

For more than two decades Thomas has researched clothing and retail trends exclusively for people with disabilities, and as a congenital amputee herself missing digits on her right hand and feet, this is more than her profession, it’s her lived experience.

Thomas says people with disabilities are not seen as fashion customers, despite the $6 trillion combined buying power of these individuals, their family and friends: “We personify pets more than we do fashion disability customers. We design for pets, we have jackets for pets…” With her Disability Fashion Styling System©, she provides safe and stylish options so that people with diverse needs can dress to feel great and be seen.

Accenture | SolutionsIQ’s Leslie Morse hosts.

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LESLIE MORSE: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Women in Agile podcast series. I’m your host Leslie Morse, and today we are chatting with Stephanie Thomas. Stephanie is a disability fashion styling expert, and founder and CEO of Cur8able, a B2B business dedicated to addressing those with disabilities. Over two decades, she has researched clothing and retail trends exclusively for people with disabilities, and as a congenital amputee herself, missing digits on her right hand and feet, it is more than her profession. It is her lived experience. Stephanie, thank you for making time to chat with us today and record this episode.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: Hi Leslie, it’s my pleasure.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, I’m excited about our talk and really excited to have you as our featured keynote for the Women in Agile session that is for the Agile2019 conference in D.C. So this will be a great opportunity to capture some of the key points and messages that you’ve got for those that aren’t able to be in the room with us.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: Yeah, I really appreciate that, because I was honestly new to Agile. I had never really heard of it since I’m not really in tech, and I was just really thrilled to find how much synergy, and you know, how it mirrored my own personal experience. So I’m really excited about it.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. And that’s a perfect way to kind of get into one of the things I wanted to explore with you during our chat, which is one of the core tenants of Agile is this idea of inspect and adapt. We often say fail fast, right? We’re looking to run these quick experiments with product development to see what’s resonating with the customers, and I imagine that has to be much of what you’ve experienced and how you’ve gone about building Cur8able. Can you tell us some of those stories?

STEPHANIE THOMAS: Yeah. And prior to Cur8able, I want to take you back to 1992. so I was in college, I was actually in a pageant for scholarship money. It was the Miss America pageant system in Kentucky, and you need a platform in order to have ways to give back and serve the community as a part of this pageant system. And my pageant coach, I didn’t even know there was any such thing, but in Kentucky they take their pageants really seriously. I’m really sincerely glad they do, because that’s how I met Anne Higgins. Her husband happened to be a wheelchair user, and she noticed that I was a congenital amputee missing digits on my right hand and feet. So she was like, “Have you ever thought about clothing for people with disabilities?”.

And what she knew, and what I love about what she did, she didn’t kind of tell me her own experience. She let me explore it and learn for myself, which I have not stopped doing 27 years later. I was just so … I was like, “No, I’d never thought about clothing for people with disabilities.” And you know why she told me that? It’s not just because of her husband, it’s because I never buttoned my left cuff on my right button down shirts, which I wore a ton in college. She was like, “Why do you leave that cuff unbuttoned?” And I didn’t know why, and then I looked at my right hand and discovered it’s because I don’t have a right thumb.

LESLIE MORSE: Right.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: And so I was like, “Oh.”.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. And you know, it’s the little things like that, that great fashion designers and other people probably take for granted on a day to day basis. But until you kind of lean into that and start listening, you know, you wouldn’t know to sort of design for that.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: Right. You wouldn’t even think about it. So that just started me, because I’m very inquisitive. I just started researching, and I- pre-google, so boxes and boxes and boxes. My research coach sent me to a practice for interviewing and I just could not stop consuming it. I actually equate it to taking the pill that sent me down the rabbit hole and the matrix because I entered this world and I’ve never been able to un-see what I’ve seen, which is that people with disabilities are not considered fashion customers.

Now it’s starting to change a bit, but imagine in 1992. all I would find were uniforms with hook and loop, also known as Velcro, and you know, clothing for people that were more mature, that were, you know, 60 and older, 70 and older. And the clothing wasn’t designed to be desirable, it was designed to make it easy for someone else to dress them. And I was a bit horrified. I just couldn’t believe what I found.

LESLIE MORSE: I guess, what were some of the early “Aha” moments that you had through that research that really kind of set you on this course for the journey you’ve been on?

STEPHANIE THOMAS: So the aha moment I had was, “I can’t believe this doesn’t exist. That means I need to design it.” And then I started researching design and manufacturing and that sort of thing, and just instinctively I knew that’s not my thing. You know, I’m a storyteller. So I kicked that to the side, but that’s where I started. I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to design clothing for people with disabilities.” That was my pageant voice and that was my pageant platform. And then I was like, “No, I’m not.”.

And my real turning point in this is that, what I thought was a pageant platform never went away. Every time I saw another person with a disability on the street, I would talk to them and I would ask them about dressing. So I was still researching, I was still reading everything, looking in papers, and one of the things that I want people to know is that the United States is about 15 years behind the rest of the world in this space.

LESLIE MORSE: Really?

STEPHANIE THOMAS: Yeah. So the UK was Wheeliechix Chic. That was one of the first seated brands for people with disabilities that I’ve found. There was Rolli Moden in Germany. There were a couple of brands, you know, like Silverts and things like that in the U.S., but they were still for more mature audiences that tended to be people that could not ambulate, or you know, they needed help in order to dress anyway. People that needed dressers in order to dress. So it was not attractive clothing.

And the major turning point for me is, I never stopped researching. I would put together folders and folders and folders of research. But after watching Oprah Winfrey … This was my turning point. I’m not messing, I’m not making any of this up. I was watching Oprah. She said, “We’re going to have a fashion show featuring all body types.” I was a television reporter so I could get off early. I came home. I was just so excited to see people with disabilities included in this show, and I think they had everybody type except disability.

And so I jumped on the phone when you could still call designers, and I’ll never forget. I call major designers and one designer said, “Send me a one pager.” I really think saying the word disability scared the marketing department, so they started to talk to me, and so I would get designer after designer and they would say, “Yes, send me a one pager.” We started a conversation, and after a year a designer actually flew me out to California, walked me around, told people, other designers that I was going to design for their brand, and then they never took my call again.

And that was my aha aha moment. That what I was thinking I needed to do by contacting them, contacting them was not an effective solution because I was the one with all the research. So that’s where my disability fashion styling system was born. That was basically birthed out of three questions that I constantly asked people when they were dressing, including myself, and hadn’t even paid attention to it.

It was, “Is this clothing easy to put on and take off?” After she pointed out the whole, you know, button thing to me. “Is it easy to put on and take off? Is it medically safe?” You know, is it gonna harm your body? And, “Is this something that you love? Does it work with your lifestyle and does it work with your body type?”. Those three categories, accessible, smart, fashionable, that has become … it’s the basis of the Stephanie Thomas styling method. It was the thing that changed my work, and that was in 2004.

LESLIE MORSE: I love that you have those three questions that are kind of core to the way you go about this philosophy. Having that that anchored in is probably also key to the way you go and listen to customers, because without listening to them, you don’t know how to help with styling and how to shape the research and guidance that you’re giving to others. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer, right? That’s the very first Agile principle. So how does that play into the work that you do?

STEPHANIE THOMAS: I think you are right on with that. Listening to the customer is key. I was just watching Queer Eye on Netflix, right? Literally before this interview because, they just worked with a gentleman that had a seated body type. So you know, I’m looking at it because I’m like, “Okay, let’s see what they do when they’re styling him.”.

And one of the things that I noticed, the gentleman asked very basic straight on questions, which I thought was good, but you know what he didn’t do? He didn’t have the knowledge to respond to the client with information that would empower the client. So he said, “Do you like to wear jackets?” The guy said, “I don’t really wear jackets because I have a … you know, they get caught in the wheels.” So he didn’t have the information to say, “Well, did you know that there’s actually adaptive clothing designed for sitting? You have what is known as a seated body type. Let me educate you, let me show you.”.

So the guy doesn’t always have to go to the tailor. There are things available. Another question, he said, you know, when he asked him about the dressing room, the gentleman had been shot and that’s how he became a gentleman that uses a wheelchair for mobility. And he said, “I haven’t been in a dressing room since I was shot.” The gentleman never asked him, “Do you need to get out of your wheelchair to transfer in order to get dressed? Can you dress in your chair? Should I make sure something else is available? He asked him about pants but never asked him if there were rivets on the back of the pants. Never asked him things that could actually cause harm over time where the seam’s too thick in the pants.

He didn’t tell the gentleman things that he didn’t know. So for me, listening to the client is important. But one thing that happens with people with disabilities, and I think in other areas too, people always assume that the client with a disability knows how to do everything and they’re the expert and we’re just going to listen to them. But the client knows so much. We have to have the knowledge to know the leading questions and then we have to have the wisdom to listen to them.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, because I think about this and, sometimes you just don’t know better. If you only ever bought clothes that had fixed seams or had these rivets, it would never occur to you that there might be options to not have that because it would increase comfort and quality of life. I’ve just been through a phase where I’ve had a knee surgery and I’ve been in mobilizer for a number of weeks, and have been shocked at how much the way I dress and the way I get ready on a day to day basis shifted from that. And so just listening, you know, and engaging in this conversation today, it makes me think about somebody that would deal with this every day and how that’d have to be different, and that there really does need to be an advocacy conversation for our population and our people that are dealing with this day in and day out.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: And here’s the thing. Now that you’re using this, you know, assistive technology, you didn’t automatically become this expert.

LESLIE MORSE: No, definitely not.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: It’s odd for people to think, “They’re using assistive technology. They’re the expert. Let’s tip toe around asking them questions,” and I’m thinking that’s because people with disabilities are not seen as fashion customers. Pets have been through this humanization process, I like to say, where we love our pets. And I have to admit, I personify pets. I adore them. But we personify pets more than we do fashion customers with disabilities. We design for pets. We have jackets for pets. That was another pivotal moment for me, if I can just expound on that.

I was shopping for holiday season. I saw this really great trench coat because I had a cat. He didn’t wear clothes, not at all, but I had to go in the aisle to buy toys and I saw this great London fog esque type of trench coat with actually functioning buttons and pockets, and it just annoyed me. By that time it was 1996. I was working in radio, or actually I apologize, it was 2006. I was working in radio and I was an on air announcer, morning drive host, and it just annoyed me that I could come in the store, a pet parent could come in the store and have more clothing options designed for their pet’s body type than a person with a seated body type or someone with arthritis.

It just annoyed me that I then packed away all of my own clothing, limited myself to dressing in kind of lounge wear pajamas. I bought 60 pair, had the monogram, the PJ DJ, and from that point for that whole year, that’s all I wore. Washed and wore it the whole year. I wanted to know what it felt like to go in a store with all of this product and then be limited to something that small. And it really opened my eyes that, you know what? This is not just something that I want to advocate for. This is something that I want to make my life’s work.

That was a turning point for me because I was styling before I knew that styling was a thing. I was an accidental stylist, but all I did was inspect, adapt, and fail fast. Everything that I thought I knew and everything that I thought I needed to do, every time I met a person and I learned something new, I didn’t hold on to what I thought it should be. I just moved forward in ways to empower people, to solve a problem.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. And so when you think about yourself in that role of advocate, right. You had all this information, you were having these experiences. Obviously, if you went through the the pageant processes. You talked about having coaches, about speaking and being there and developing that presence on stage, but what did you really do to kind of emerge as this outward facing leader and advocate? To be someone that others really listened to and is making a difference in the world? What was that personal journey like?

STEPHANIE THOMAS: Yeah, that was the PJ DJ. That was all of those years of researching. I can safely say if anyone met anyone that knew me since college, I have talked to literally every human being that I’ve met at least once about dressing with disabilities. So for me, I had already been engaging, building research, giving the research away to anyone that I found, contacting occupational therapists, but it wasn’t an advocacy role.

When I decided, “You know what, I want to do something more with this.” It was when I saw that trench coat for dogs. And you have to remember at that time, it was really, really popular. It was still not really new, but it was still a really hot thing to see really cute clothing for pets. So at that moment when I saw that, I started to talk about. For 365 days, I wore pajamas as the PJ DJ. Every single day on the air. I counted down the days, and on the air I talked about disability related issues and dressing.

That really launched me into … After that year, I went back for a second graduate degree in fashion journalism. I wanted to learn everything I could about fashion and learn how I could make a difference in this industry. And that’s when I went from advocate to social entrepreneur, because you know, I had just been doing the work, solving the problem, and then I just decided. I think that year, 2008, in February, that’s when I just said, “You know what? I’m done with just helping people and, you know, doing this this way. I want to make this something where I helped change how people with disabilities are viewed.”

LESLIE MORSE: And I’m guessing that was the kind of the turning point that brought you to to launching Cur8able. Is that true?

STEPHANIE THOMAS: Yeah, eventually. And that’s what I love about my story is that it’s messy. You know, everybody likes to, they like to go, “When did Cur8able come about?” Well, heck. Cur8able, I didn’t really call it Cur8able to 2015. Prior to that, I had started a blog. Remember, I was a problem solver. By trade, I’m a media person. I’ve been in SAG AFTRA as a voice actor since 2001. I started voiceovers in 1997.

So by trade I’m a media person. I wasn’t someone that was, you know, set out to start Cur8able. It started out as Love What You Wear. That was a blog, and then I found that there were not enough really beautiful images that I wanted to show. That took my styling from helping everyday people to starting to style photo shoots, which I had no idea how to do, in order to get the looks that I want.

And then I transformed Love What You Wear and all of these other iterations of the name of my blog into an actual company, into actually saying, “This is a company, this company is dedicated to dressing with disabilities.” And the reason why I don’t just say dressing people with disabilities is because I don’t only dress people with disabilities. I act as a thought leader. I have a textbook coming out in the spring called Fitting In: The Social Implications of Fashion and Dressing With Disabilities. I go on sets and I consult other people in what it means to dress with disabilities. So I took everything that I’ve learned in my career in media. I took everything I know about storytelling and I’ve applied that to Cur8able.

And I said, “I’m going to do what I do best. I connect with people, I love people, I talk to people and I’m able to listen to them. And in addition to that, I know how to tell a story.” I know how to tell their story visually in a way where people don’t have to apologize for the assistive technology, but people are seen before their assistive technology.

LESLIE MORSE: Completely agree. When you think about fashion and first impressions, and I think all of this work and the courage that it would take to kind of go from being a blogger to making this more and then actually launching a company around it.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: Yeah, people thought I was crazy. They thought I was crazy. Other stylists asked me, “Are you making money?” I actually had a man, and my ethnicity is important to this story because he was not a minority. He sat next to me at a table. I was doing some work with a PhD course. They asked me to come in and help their students, kind of educate them on kind of my work. And I was sitting there and he flippantly looked at me. First he told me he was a millionaire. I was like, “Okay.” So he’s already starting out on jerk territory because no one at the table asked him that. And then he says, “What do you do?”. I mentioned to him about disability, as I told you I always do. And he said, “Yeah, if it’s such a thing, why are you the one that came up with it?”.

So these were the type of responses that I would get from people. And you know, then behind closed doors people would say things like, “Oh, you want to dress the retarded? You want to do this?” It was just insane, the stuff that I was dealing with. People even would say, “Is there money in that? You know, is that something that you can make a living on?” When they missed the whole point that I was solving a problem. And what they also missed is that, whenever you listen to your customer and solve their problems, you will always make money.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. It’s kind of going back to that highest priority. Take care of your customers, take care of the teams that you work with, and all the other right things will happen.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: Absolutely, absolutely.

LESLIE MORSE: So it’s interesting as you talk about that, right? You’re not only playing in this space of working, you know, around dressing with disabilities, but you’re also a female leader, playing in spaces and getting involved in conversations that have never been had before. And then your ethnicity plays into that. What has been your maybe inner game, or that conversation you have with yourself that gears you up every day to go conquer the world?

STEPHANIE THOMAS: Well-

LESLIE MORSE: Because I think that’s a conversation that lots of us need to have with ourselves every day.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: Okay, So I’m going to be really honest with you. In addition to being a woman with a disability, being an African American woman, I just turned 50. At 43, I sold my home on the east coast and everything that I owned. I brought 23 boxes. I flew 23 boxes out. I flew my cat out one way ticket and I came to L.A., because I said, “This is where images are made.” And I flew here, we slept on a floor for a while, and I rebuilt everything at 43. And I’m saying that because you know, at 43, once you’ve had a career and you’re used to not … you know, it’s just different being in a gig economy, starting a business and having a check that you can depend on. And so what I would tell myself in order to get to that point and every day after, every day that is tough, every day that is working, is that I know that this is an issue.

I hear the voices of the people that I help in my gut. I trust my gut, and I don’t allow myself to be moved by people that don’t know the industry, by people that are presented as leaders in the industry but I know that have not done the work. So a lot of that is trusting my gut. For me, and this is not going to be for everyone, but for me, my faith plays a huge role in it. I literally feel like I was born to do this work, and so every time that I doubt it, I just have to think back.

27 years ago, I could not have known that this would be a thing now. I couldn’t have known 27 years ago that a pageant platform would become my life’s work. I couldn’t have known all of that. So that gives me the faith to keep going. And it also gives me the faith to not try to be everything to everyone. It gives me the confidence to say, “I know my lane. Although there will be curves and hills in my lane, I know what I’m good at. I know that I’ve taken an assessment of my skillset and I go for what I know. I trust my gut and I listen to the people I work with.”

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. Know thyself, I think, is so important. I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that so much of this story and listening to you talk today is really about purpose driven motive, right? That when you really hook into that purpose, and that transcends everything that you are. Working from that place of purpose, things start falling into place. It doesn’t mean you don’t have adversity and you don’t have challenges. You talked about, you know, hills and curves in the road, but there’s something about that purpose motive that really allows so many things to emerge and be created in your life.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: And can I say something? Actually, my mother watching my journey brought this to my attention. You know, doing the work that I do, I also get a chance to, and I never will stop doing this. I teach at least one college course each term, and I’ve started to use my textbook in the course, but that’s not why I teach it. I teach communication, advocacy communication, and I teach fashion marketing.

The one thing that she told me, she was like, “You’ve been teaching your stuffed animals since you were a child. Instead of looking at things as challenges, look at them as lessons and look at them as adventures.” And when I started doing that, it really changed it for me, because it’s not a challenge anymore if someone doesn’t buy into what I’m doing. It’s there to teach me something. It’s there to teach me about how I pitched it. It’s there to teach me that they’re not the right partners. It’s making it more enjoyable for me, and it’s really helped me roll my shoulders back and take a metaphoric and actual exhale and just relax, because what’s for me is for me. Just be open to learning everything that I can learn, and that makes me a better a stylist and a better styling expert and consultant. So, you know, I’m really excited about this.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. And you couldn’t have brought it home better for me as we start wrapping up our conversation today, right? The very first line of the Agile manifesto is about, we’re uncovering better ways of delivering value by doing it ourselves and helping others do it too. And there’s something, you know, this constant learners mindset that you’re talking about. By living this every day in your own experiences and then helping others dress with disabilities too, right? It’s another lens on that idea of really being connected with core values and purpose that I think is so great.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: Absolutely. And getting out of your mind that there is a wrong way to do it. In conclusion, getting that out of your mind, there’s a wrong way to do it. Solve a problem, listen to your clients and trust your gut.

LESLIE MORSE: Excellent. Well, Stephanie, thank you so much for spending time with us today. I really appreciate it. I’m excited for your session at the Women in Agile conference and I’m really pleased to have this episode recorded, so thank you.

STEPHANIE THOMAS: You’re so welcome. It’s my pleasure.

LESLIE MORSE: Excellent. And thank you for listening to this episode of the Women in Agile podcast series. It’s brought to you in partnership from the Women in Agile nonprofit organization and Accenture SolutionsIQ. We hope you’ve learned something new and invite you to tell a friend or coworker about the podcast. Please go online to womeninagile.org to learn more about our initiatives and find more inspiring podcast conversations.