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  • Writer's picturePeta

Behind The Seams Of Christina Stephens With Jessie Sadler & Carol Taylor

Join host Peta on The I Can't Stand Podcast as she delves into the inspiring journey of Carol Taylor and Jessie Sadler, the dynamic duo behind the adaptive fashion brand Christina Stephens.

Discover how their backgrounds in law led to a revolutionary partnership, crafting inclusive designs for people with a disability. Enjoy this peek behind the 'seams' of this groundbreaking brand reshaping the world of fashion for a more inclusive industry.

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Episode Transcript:

Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to The I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast answering your questions about what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peta. I had cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I have two lovely ladies on the podcast, Jesse Sadler and Carol Tyler, maybe better known as the two amazing people behind the Adaptive fashion label. Christina Stephens. If you've been listening to the podcast for a while, you know that I really enjoyed this conversation. Any excuse to talk about fashion, let alone inclusive fashion? I'm a happy person. So without any further ado, let's get into it.


Jessie [00:01:01] Hello. My name is Jesse Sadler. I'm the founder of Christina Stephens, and I look after the business, marketing and BD side of the business. Well, that's what my business card says. And as you'll find out throughout this podcast, we often change function throughout the day depending on what's going on.


Carol [00:01:20] Hi there, I'm Carol Taylor. I am a partner and lead designer in the Christina Stephens Adaptive clothing label. Guess it's my job to come up with the designs. And then, you know, as Jesse mentioned, our roles lead back and forward throughout the day and weeks, and we pretty much collaborate on everything that we put forward into production.


Peta [00:01:42] Now, ladies, I never like to assume people who are listening have all the information. So let's start from the very beginning. Jesse, I'll ask you, who is the Christina Stevens customer?


Jessie [00:01:54] The customer that we targeted initially when we started the business was, a mature female that was experiencing body changes as she was ageing with life. So things like mobility, dexterity restrictions, frozen shoulder, smashed elbows, like my mum, which was the concept of the business. It moved to a much younger demographic very quickly. Now we cater for men. And so the age range that we typically see, from our customers now can be as young as 21 and as beautifully mature as 80. A large part of our, collection is aimed at people in the seated position. So for those permanently or part time in wheelchairs, the prosthetic market. But certainly, we widen it to capture as much of the market as possible, for people with mobility and dexterity restrictions and universal designs.


Peta [00:03:02] And also what's really fantastic is you're an Australian brand. It's so important to foster and support such a beautiful industry that is, you know, it's not quite in its infancy, but it's still got a long way to go. And it's fantastic to see a brand like Christina Stephens really blossom. Carol, I know and people who have listened to this podcast possibly will also know because you've been previously a guest. I know you were looking to formalise your own fashion label when Jesse approached you. Why did you say yes to a partnership rather than going out on your own?


Carol [00:03:42] Well, I've been in business previously and I'm familiar with the partnership process. And, you know, it's good to have someone else to bounce ideas off of. You know, we might bump heads sometimes, but at the end of the day, you get there, you know, it's good to have another point of view. But also, apart from being able to bounce ideas off, Christina Stephens had already established was already established. It was off the ground and had a good supply chain in place. So for me, it was a bit of a no brainer that I would get to where I wanted to be much faster by joining Jess in partnership and building it from the ground up on myself. And considering that neither of us have a fashion background, we both come from oil and gas with a Law qualification. My background, as you know, is also law and art. So, you know, fashion degrees be gone, you know? So it was really a leap of faith and necessity. I think that was the catalyst for both of us.


Peta [00:04:40] I have to say, when I was researching it, both, I found it, as you say, a really interesting coincidence that you both did come from a background in law. Jess, have you reflected as to why you've both been attracted to this industry, and why you think you've both taken this shift, or do you think it's purely a coincidence?


Jessie [00:05:01] And so I have a qualification in law. I have qualifications in business as well. And I've never practised law. It's just been part of my commercial jobs. But if you look at, my career history, I've always been attracted to emerging markets or, creating change. I've worked in renewable energy, in carbon markets, and I've always loved fashion. And so when this opportunity emerged, I was on maternity leave and I was, looking at a few different business opportunities to start. And it was my mum who kept saying, we love this, this will be fun. Try and find something in this area. And it was something that was needed. It wasn't just another, lot of product on the shelves. There's a very strong demand for it. So it's about creating change, I think for me.


Peta [00:05:55] And as you say, Jessie, you know, you were originally attracted to this business not only through your mother's encouragement, but through your mother's needs and finding clothing that better suited her lifestyle. As somebody who has a disability herself, I really value you recognising lived experience and the importance of Carol being alongside you. Since Carol has been alongside you. What sort of insights has she brought to the business? Or maybe just a one off example where a light bulb  goes off in your head and you're like, oh my goodness, I've never thought about that.


Jessie [00:06:32] A lot like she's been a game changer to the business completely. Lived experience is something that we have and distinct advantage in, at the design and leadership table through both of us. I did some designs early on myself in the business and when Carol came on board. She was like, what the fuck are you thinking? What is that all about? Because I had these very basic ideas of what people in a wheelchair needs in their clothing based on having conversations with people. But. Well as a business relationship and our friendship is great. I've learnt a lot about what Carol lives with on a daily basis, and it's not just that she's in the stated position. It's that there's catheter bag says colostomy bag because temperature regulation aids, there's pressure sore avoidance needs. It's comfort. So unless you unless you live it, it's very hard to, cater for it.


Peta [00:07:37] Absolutely. And I know Carol is rightly very proud to be the world's first quadriplegic fashion designer. And it just from my perspective, it just makes me so happy to have someone that does truly understand, like, of course, all the adaptive clothing on the market. To have that as an option is great, but I think  Christina Stephens the label really does exemplify how that is, that lived experience and a deeper understanding of what it is to live with a disability or use a wheelchair.


Carol [00:08:13]  I was just going to say Peta. Jess and I both have our own disability journeys. So we both bring something in that regards the table and if Jess is happy to expand on that, I'll leave that to Jess.  But I from my point of view, I look at it, I use a lovely watercolour term. Whenever there's a mistake in watercolour, you try to turn it to your advantage. And I think that the two of us coming together and with a joint lived experience in disability, I consider it a very happy accident.


Peta [00:08:44] I wanted to talk to you about your latest new range with Christina Stephens. As we know, jeans are a must have and a staple in any wardrobe. Can you talk to me about your bullet-proof denim and how it makes it different?


Carol [00:09:01] Jess and I are  constantly working with models and during shoots. And one lovely girl in particular that I worked with previously. And then I bought to Christina Stephens and we got talking and she wasn't the only person with limb difference that we got talking to. We got a little focus group together and started researching, and it was a shock to me to discover some learning stuff about disability that I'm unaware of all the time, and came home to Jess and said  you know what? They because they lose a limb. They, they there's less surface area from which to sweat. So a person with limb difference is running hot all the time. Unlike me, he's running cold all the time, so I can't make it my body temperature. So they, they, they wear shorts rather than jeans. And my, my girlfriend Bella said she'd love to wear jeans, but the problem is her prosthetic limbs are made of fibreglass and titanium. Just scratches of friction. The friction against the denim just tears through the denim just keeps contributing to landfill. She has to go buy another pair. Throughout the day, she'd need access to her prosthetic to adjust or to make minor adjustments or scratch or whatever things she needed to do. Also, the denim is too hot. And I got the same and similar feedback from others with limb difference. So then we went down the journey of textile development, Jess and I and that was I a moment late one evening when I just thought, you know what? If I can make bullet-proof vests, why the hell can't they make bullet-proof denim? So this started Jess and I, on, on this, research road and we, we just were like a dog with the bone. We kept continuing and we ended up adding, a patented ingredient to denim to lower the temperature of the denim and also to increase its durability. And then, of course, the zips down the side, provide the access that's needed. And then all we needed to add was some style, funk it up and function rather than just being a daggy pair of jeans that, you know, is all about the wearer being able to put it or the carer being able to put it on the wearer. Our mantra is wear what you want, not just what you given. Just because you have a disability doesn't mean that you step off the style stage and don't want to look stylish and cool and fit in with everyone else. So and that was missing. What was coming in, in our view, merely fell short of offering the safety, measures that we like to offer. You know, we've added softening agents to our denim to prevent pressure sores. We've  moved seams out of where we think they're dangerous. So we, you know, we thought about, discreet catheter bag access, so all sorts of stuff that we haven't seen anyone else do before.


Peta [00:11:42] And also the great thing about denim is it's trendy from season to season and it doesn't date. So like that's also something I really admire both of you for tackling a fashion label, as we know things are in fashion and then there are out of fashions. Carol, I'll direct this question to you. How have your designs evolved since coming on the team, and how do you gain inspiration and get those fresh ideas from season to season?


Carol [00:12:14] I keep a very close eye on what's happening in the fashion industry. I love fashion and I'm constantly looking at, okay, I'd love to wear that. But see, I couldn't because it's being designed by my body person for body shape. So what can I do to that to make it possible for me to wear it? So I guess I'm my own muse in that regard. And I think, well, if I can fit it around my body, then it's just scaling everything down for me usually, right? Yeah. I'm inspired by the beauty, the sea out there, and then frustrated and annoyed that I can't wear it. And then. Then the cogs start moving. Okay, what can I do to it to make it possible for me to wear?


Peta [00:12:55] And Jess where do you source your inspiration from?


Jessie [00:12:59] I kind of oscillate on a daily basis, between wearing something way out or wearing all black or blue jeans and a white t shirt. It kind of depends on how I feel. Everyone needs to have the same, opportunity to have a shopping and retail experience. We went out on a shopping trip in Sydney a couple of years ago and Rob, Carol's husband, and I were taking turns carrying Carol's ramp around to get into and out of the stores. The stock was high up, so the coat hangers Carol  wasn't able to reach to look at them. And it was very clear that some of the sales assistants were a bit intimidated or untrained in how to approach Carol to ask for what she was looking for.


Carol [00:13:53] And the annoying thing was that the dressing rooms were big enough for me to get my chair in. But really the frustrating thing was this shopping trip was the morning after our biggest achievement making history at Australian Fashion Week, when Australia's very first adaptive clothing runway. It was one of two standing ovations that were given, and it was just such a magnificent moment. It felt like Jess and I grabbed the back of my wheelchair, and collectively we had burst open doors that had been, we used me as a battering ram to burst open doors that had been shut in the disability community for almost 30 years, from going from that absolute high to going shopping the next morning and finding you've  landed on your ass. And you know this is not for you. You're not welcome here. That's what I felt like. It was a big drop.


Peta [00:14:42] I actually wanted to speak about whether you felt there's been a shift in the level of inclusion within the fashion industry, or whether you've felt supported to grow your business from retailers. How is that relationship going?


Jessie [00:15:01] This question. So I reflected on my Instagram accounts, LinkedIn accounts like what's happening in the industry. But then I realised that all of my followers and followings, in this world that we work in and be in. And so that was probably a slanted view. We've seen major fashion brands promote their inclusivity by putting someone with a prosthetic limb in a slider. Now that is tokenistic, because someone with a prosthetic limb wouldn't be able to wear that slider. So that was either tokenistic or just a lack of research, and information gathering, which to me is insane. On the flip side, we are seeing major. Fashion brands like Skims, like Victoria's Secret, like Nike, recognise the commercial opportunity and the demand. In terms of retailers in Australia, we've been on The Iconic since 2021. While we appreciate being on on the platform, there's still, even in an online setting, a lot of work, to make that shopping experience as accessible as possible for people with disability. And I think offline and in bricks and mortar. We are certainly getting traction in the disability space. I think. The large retail department stores, particularly in the in the US. They've certainly started the, journey. But I think my feeling is that a lot of the large retailers don't know where to start. And it's not just putting product on hangers and shelves, it's making sure the floors are accessible. They're marketing it correctly. The staff are trained, the fitting rooms, the decked out for people to be able to use them. And so I think in that space as a bit to go.


Carol [00:17:18] I would just throw it on there. You know, we've got some good advocates like Lisa Cox that's pushing very hard for increased presence in media and advertising. I think that helps. We've seen people like James Parr  has done well since Fashion week and Sara Sham's at ANZ  ad. How fantastic is she in that. And even I believe Carly Findlay now being signed with Silver Fox management. So there's, there's improvement, but there's still, as Lisa would say, there's still a long way to go.


Peta [00:17:50] And that also must be such a consideration for you both to understand how you are going to expand your reach with the brand. That's it. There's no point putting it in a retailer that doesn't understand the customer. With the customer then having a bad experience like that would be the last thing that you would need. So I presume there's a lot of work and a lot of consideration in the background when making business decisions of that sort of ilk.


Jessie [00:18:21] As a as a business. Also, we're very happy to provide that guidance. We put so much resource and effort into our own website to get it to a very high Google, result and, and very, high human feedback on the accessibility of our site. So for a mainstream or a universal retailer, that that is part of the product that we're selling that in that Intel.


Peta [00:18:49] Often there is a perception that adaptive clothing is quite expensive, and I can see why there's a lot of man hours that go into it, a lot of expertise. But I also want people to know and understand that if they are on the NDIS, they can also get pieces of clothing as part of the package. Is that something that you find that's really important for your customers that maybe not everybody knows about?


Jessie [00:19:18] Absolutely. When we look at our sales data, it's a very, very high percentage of people, using the NDIS funds. But we still have plan managers and we still have allied health professionals. Come back and question the suitability of our clothing for that funding use. And so I think there's still a bit of education at that level to provide information. We do it as much as we can. We provide the code on our website, on our invoices. Obviously, Carol makes a lot of effort, to engage with plan managers to, you know, bring them up to speed with what we're doing in that we're we are majority adaptive and then universal.


Carol [00:20:06] There's a lot more that goes into it. When you're designing something that's, say for example, a pair of pants or jeans. For someone that seated, it would be much more cost effective to use the fabrics on your standard, pattern out your layouts. But because we want to a special bum, we want to take the seams out here and then we want, we want zips inserted and we don't want just any zip. We want a YKK quality zip. You know, these are all add ons. These are all extras and labour intensive. So they're costs that unfortunately we we can't dodge if we want to deliver a good quality product. But our customers are going to say, you know what, we love these. And and we test them on our customers. We test them. I don't know if you've seen pictures of Dinesh Palipana on Instagram lately, but that man lives in our jeans. You can't get him out of them. So, I mean, we must be doing something right.


Jessie [00:20:59] I think for customers also to appreciate that it's not just the product that goes into the cost of the product. It's, marketing, photography, lots of other things that go into it.


Peta [00:21:15] Finally, I want to ask you both. Jessie, I might start with you. What keeps the fire in your belly to keep Christina Stephens going? And what's your hope for the future?


Jessie [00:21:29] The fact that our clothing is making a difference, a real difference to to people's happiness, to their health, to their carers and their families ease of support that it is an emerging market and it's fun because we're learning all the time and that it is a new category. There is demand, there is support. And there's a lot of room for growth. And I think, being one of the first movers in Australia, we're in a good position to take advantage of that. So. Yeah, that's from a business perspective. I love working with Carol. I love our team. It's a very family orientated set up pretty much. My mum always puts the two bobs within inside as my eight year old daughter and I really enjoy working in that environment.


Peta [00:22:20] And Carol, what keeps the fire in the belly for you?


Carol [00:22:24] Look, I'm the first to admit that I get goose bumps when we get feedback from our customers. Like, that's like, oh, wow. Okay, great. And I and I openly ask them, what do you want next? You know what? What can I what can I work? Give me the next puzzle. So that Jess and I l can work on it and see how we can figure it out. And I love working with Jess and our families. I never know what the next day is going to bring.


Peta [00:22:47] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it. I know I'm off to go shopping on Christina Stephens  for my new winter wardrobe. If you did enjoy this episode, can I encourage you to leave a rating interview wherever you listen to the podcast or share the show on social media? You can also follow me on Instagram. My handle is at Peter Hooke, spelt Peta Hooke. Thank you again for listening. And until next week. Bye. I would like to respectfully acknowledge the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung People of the Kulin Nation, of which I record the podcast today. And I pay my respects to both elders, past and present, along with and especially to those in the First Nations communities who are disabled themselves.




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