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Christina Stephens: Meet adaptive fashion’s disruptive duo

In just two years, the adaptive fashion brand Christina Stephens has grown retail revenue fourfold by tapping an underserved market for stylish clothes that meet the unique needs of people with disabilities.

Jessie Sadler founded Christina Stephens in 2020 after her mother complained that she couldn’t find good fashionable clothing after experiencing a fall.

“We were shopping on James Street in Fortitude Valley when my mum tripped and smashed both of her elbows,” Sadler explains. “She wasn’t able to dress and when we tried to look for clothing that didn’t resemble a hospital gown, the options were underwhelming. I didn’t realise adaptive clothing was such a non-existent category.”

After researching the fashion available for style-conscious people living with short- or long-term physical challenges, she realised there was a social and business opportunity. “Twenty per cent of the population lives with a disability,” Sadler says. “Yet, the proportion of beautiful, quality, and on-trend fashion available was vastly lacking.”

Christina Stephens – Sadler named the brand after her parents’ first names – has a mission of giving people with disabilities and changing bodies more confidence and more choice, and raising the conversation around normalising the idea that every body is different.

“This is the next leap forward for our label in disrupting the fashion industry.”

Sadler has been overwhelmed by the support from her ever-growing community. “In just two short years, we’ve quadrupled our retail revenue, grown our wholesale and drop-shipping revenue by 300 per cent, and been snapped up by major retailers, including The Iconic,” she enthuses. “And we featured at the first-ever Afterpay Australian Fashion Week (AAFW) Adaptive Clothing Collective runway in early May.”

Renowned artist and disability advocate Carol Taylor recently joined Christina Stephens, after she and Sadler spent the past few years cheering each other’s successes.

“We made the decision to team up, with the collective mission to change what’s considered mainstream fashion,” Sadler says. “Christina Stephens as a label has always been about collaboration over competition. If we want to see true progress in mainstream fashion, it starts by working as one. And this collaboration has come about both despite and because of our very different approaches to design.

“With Carol as the world’s first quadriplegic fashion designer, and co-owner and designer of Christina Stephens, this is the next leap forward for our label in disrupting the fashion industry, creating universal designs for people with disabilities and changing bodies,” Sadler explains. “Carol is not only bringing her lived experience, but also more of her assertive, colourful, and glamourous style to the brand, [which] our customers have been asking for.”

Sadler says their new collection, Unwrapped, is a blend of her own and Taylor’s unique styles that brings an elevated, colourful and glamorous punch to the brand. The collection was inspired by a Zoom call Carol was on with a group of colleagues from the US, including a quadriplegic gentleman who was about to get married. He was excited but bemoaned the fact that he’d “never know what it’s like to unwrap my bride”. This prompted the first-ever adaptive lingerie piece that’s part of the Unwrapped collection. 

Christina Stephens operates on the ethos that good adaptive design doesn’t end with magnetic buttons and zips. “For example, when designing for someone in a wheelchair, it’s not just about designing for someone in a seated position, there’s so much more to be considered,” Sadler explains. “A seam placed in the wrong position can cause a pressure injury and all of a sudden you’re out of action for months. Too much fabric in the wrong spot can cause excruciating nerve pain, putting the kibosh on any plans you had for the day.”

Sadler wants everyone to understand the need for this new category of clothing. “It can be universal, but it must be adaptive,” she says. “And, even more so, it must be designed by those with lived experience of a disability. This is a big market… retailers like Myer, David Jones and FarFetch need to realise this is a product that’s wanted. Build it and they will come,” Sadler avers.

This article first appeared in issue 37 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine.

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