2018 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient: Stephanie Thomas
Although her disability may not be obvious, Stephanie Thomas has always found shopping for stylish clothes that are easy to put on and take off a challenge. A congenital amputee, Thomas was born missing digits on her hands and feet. But it was shopping for a pet that put her on the path to becoming a fashion stylist and advocate for the disabled. Thomas was a radio deejay in Los Angeles when a dog coat caught her eye in a pet store in 2007. The coat was not only cute, but also carefully designed with buttons and pockets in just the right spots for a dog’s body.
“That was a transformative moment for me,” said Thomas. “I realized that it was easier to get customized clothes for pets than for people with disabilities.”
Shortly after her epiphany in the pet store, she packed away her entire wardrobe and dressed in nothing but pajamas for an entire year. Dubbing herself “the P.J. Deejay,” Thomas toured the country and used her radio program to highlight the need for better clothing options for those with disabilities.
That campaign changed the course of her career. She launched a website, cur8able.com, which provides resources on disability-friendly fashions, look books, a podcast and blog. In addition, she developed a Disability Fashion Styling System based on three key principles clothing must have to be suitable for someone with a disability.
2018 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient Stephanie Thomas with Academy of Art University President Dr. Elisa Stephens. Photo by Bob Toy.
“The first is that it should be accessible—easy to take on and off,” explained Thomas. “It also needs to be medically safe. And finally, it should be fashionable. That means it’s good for the person’s body type, their lifestyle and something they absolutely love.”
Thomas had already started styling people with disabilities when she enrolled in the School of Fashion’s online program. But immersing herself in Academy of Art University’s curriculum, and in particular the world of fashion journalism, helped her learn the language of the industry and show her that she was heading in the right direction.
“The idea of taking all my work and describing myself as a stylist—all of that came from the Academy,” said Thomas, who graduated with an M.F.A. in fashion journalism in 2013. “I was super surprised when I found out I was receiving the Distinguished Alumni award because I was not the greatest student. But I use everything I learned at the Academy. It wasn’t about grades for me—it was about getting information.”
Clearly, Thomas has succeeded in applying that knowledge to her career. Today, she is the go-to stylist in Hollywood for disabled actors and influencers.
“The biggest accomplishment for me is when my clients tell me ‘You get it. I don’t have to explain my disability to you,’” remarked Thomas. “I don’t have to feel insecure about it. For me, that’s better than any award. It’s important not to get hung up on how people with disabilities self-identify. Disability is not a negative.”
As much as she loves styling, Thomas is moving towards being more of a thought leader. In 2016, she delivered a highly-praised Tedx Talk in Canada. And her anthology, “Fitting In: The Social Implications of Fashion and Dressing with Disabilities” will be published next year. Thomas recently signed with a speakers bureau and is starting to do more consulting with businesses, such as major fashion brands.
“My goal is to be on the cover of Hollywood Reporter with my clients with disabilities,” she said. “Once that happens, I will start to shift from being a stylist to being a styling consultant and teaching more. But I want to make that milestone because it will normalize actors and influencers with disabilities as people who would even have a stylist. I want to blow up Cura8ble.com and get to a point where we don’t need it anymore.”