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Carol Taylor The world's first quadriplegic fashion designer

Carol Taylor is a successful lawyer, artist, fashion designer wife and mother.

If there was ever a person that is an actual inspiration, it's Carol Taylor.


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Instagram @petahooke



Episode Transcript:

Peta [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand podcast. The podcast answering your questions on what life is like when you have a disability. My name's Peta. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I have the amazing Carol Taylor for you. Boy, oh, boy. Did I struggle to edit this one down this week. Carole is just full of amazing insights and is someone that I really look up to in what a disabled woman can achieve in both her personal and professional life. So without any further ado, I'm going to hand over to Carole.

Carol [00:00:55] Hi. My name is Carol Taylor. I am an artist. I am a lawyer, a disability advocate, and I believe the world's first quadriplegic fashion designer. I should add, more importantly and above all of that, I'm a mom and a wife.

Peta [00:01:15] From my perspective, you're a very accomplished person, and I wouldn't say I'm intimidated, but I'm very impressed with your overall achievement in life. Yeah, you're you're a solicitor, you're fashion designer, your mother, as you said. I think the word inspiration can be quite a dirty term in the disability community. And I wondered how you view that concept of being an inspiration.

Carol [00:01:44] Look, I'm. I'm flattered that you would use that word with me. I. I don't see it as a dirty word. I certainly don't think of myself as an inspiration. I'm just chaos on wheels. You know, I'm trying to juggle so many things at once. I would never describe myself as an inspiration to others. However, there are people with disability in my circle that certainly inspire me. I think when you can see something, you can be something. I would like to think that with the recent achievement of Australian Fashion Week, that if there is a young fashion designer out there with a disability, that they might think, well, if she can have a go and do it then, then I can, you know, and I guess if I'm just a hustler, I'm just a hustler having a go and hoping that it works out.

Peta [00:02:34] I'm with you. I certainly have that in May as well. I am very driven and very ambitious and I think as someone with a love of fashion, I really do believe representation is really important. So from my perspective, I really admire what you do. And before researching for this conversation, I didn't realise you were a solicitor. I only knew you from your fashion book. So for those of us who might not understand your background, could you explain about how you got to where you are today?

Carol [00:03:08] I became a solicitor in 1993 and sit in Sydney and I was very ambitious and worked my way up and had my own law practise. And I was a newlywed. We desperately wanted children. Rob is one of six and I'm one of four. And I just thought, like everything else that I wanted and organised and planned for that I took a switch and it would happen that it wasn't happening. So we went away for a weekend to to a property that that we owned without my family. And coming back, we had black ice. And it's a bit of a bit of a story. Everybody's got their story. But I ended up ac56 quadriplegic. I was initially paralysed from the neck down. I got some movement back, but my hands are still paralysed and I spent nearly a year in hospital, came home, went into a very, very spiralled into a deep, deep depression. My husband helped me to overcome or to deal with that, to come to terms with my catastrophic injury to art and art that opened and continues to open many doors for me, and it has given me the confidence I need to build through them. I guess to be where I am now to give me the confidence to return to law after a 14 year absence. That was tough. You know, they don't just give out your certificate. You've got to do some tests and do a trust account exam. And I had to do everything. I really think my trust account exam was a five hour oral examination. Yeah. I really was very determined. And and Ida, our son Dusty, was eight years old by then because I had him I had him six, six years after my injury. So I guess it's just sheer determination and being the all the Irish vulture that I am, I guess that just pushed me to to get here.

Peta [00:05:06] And did you find that they coming like first of all, do you consider yourself to be disabled?

Carol [00:05:14] I do indeed.

Peta [00:05:16] Yeah, that might sound like a funny question, but I never want to assume that people, you know, identify as disabled. Some people decide that they're in a wheelchair. And that's what I that's what I used to say when I was young. But as as somebody with a disability, will you draw on to go back to to law as far as. There is so much disability discrimination out there or is it always been built in you to have that sort of social justice within within your motivations?

Carol [00:05:50] The law I practised prior to my injury. The largest bulk of it, I guess would be. It was it was I was dealing with refugees without specialised immigration law. After my injury, I encountered so much discrimination when I was pregnant. The amount of unsolicited advice I received from people in shopping centres that I had no idea who I was. Or, you know, the carers that I had at the time when I was trying to get pregnant saying Really don't you think your husband has enough on his plate? Are you being selfish, wanting a child? It really was. When I look back now, it was awful. The biggest hurdle I've had to overcome since acquiring my disability is the being constantly underestimated. By able bodied people. Being constantly held to a lower by lowest standard of expectation. When I went along to my very first task, my husband, you know, to help me get out of depression, he took me along. He paid up front for all these classes. The teacher wouldn't look at me. No one in the class would make eye contact with me. I have a special splint on my arm at the time to hold the pencil that a wonderful O.T. had made for me. And she wouldn't even talk to me. She spoke to Robert at the end of the class and said, Look, I really do think your wife would be better off learning some form of abstract art where she could try paint the canvas. In that moment, I felt like Robert's child so patronising, you know? And I went home so angry. Every day thereafter I. I read and I practise and it Rob was constantly playing with thermoplastic and melting it and trying to make different adaptations to brushes and pencils for me built me a special to just so I could get my chair under and. You know, it made me it made me so determined to succeed. And when I when I moved from Sydney to the Gold Coast, the very first thing I tried to do was get into art classes here. And of course I could become a member of a very large arts organisation on the Gold Coast. But they had made the decision they take take your membership money, but they had made the decision to hold all their art classes upstairs. They wouldn't hold even a single class downstairs at the time. And I wrote to them and pleaded with them. And anyway, that really screwed me on and upset me and I sort of lamented to. But that was sort of missing my sense of professional identities. And I felt there was so much injustice and with my qualifications I should be doing something. And I got a lot of support and encouragement from him to stop me from practising and I thought, he's going to want me. The only job I honestly thought I could get was a job as a doorstop. I had no confidence in myself.

Peta [00:08:35] Which is such a disservice to not only you, but also society, because clearly you have so much to give and contribute. And that's where it really frustrates me with the lack of opportunities and low expectations that disabled people have in regards to employment.

Carol [00:08:56] Absolutely. I think the final straw for me was one day Robert and I were in a cafe and the waitress. Well, but what I would like to order and I just really didn't take that very well.

Peta [00:09:09] So how do you go from learning to pain and using that for your mental health to creating a fashion business?

Carol [00:09:19] With the encouragement of some friends, I was encouraged to enter competitions. The more competitions and prises I won slowly. Bit by bit, my confidence improved. Then I noticed there was a competition for the Exercise Achievement Award. I thought, What have I got to lose that I can only say no. And at that time, you know, by then this was 2018. You know, my injury was 2001. I'm 17 years in the chair and I've got a lot of experience with designing and having made my own clothes because I couldn't find, but I wanted to reach the retail shops. So I thought, I'm going to put forward my application for this with the idea that I would put my artwork on fabric and design some pieces that other people in wheelchairs might like to wear to or other people with disability might like to wear. I won the prise and the the organisers was so pleased with my application that they came to see me at home and wanted to see what I'd been designing for myself. I got some assistance to pull out pieces from my wardrobe. Once they saw that, they said, Look, we really would love you to do a little exhibition in Brisbane and show some of these pieces. So that was done through Artisan. And then out of the blue one day I got a phone call from the director of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival asking me, how would I like to design a collection of nine pieces to open a runway event into in 2019? Amazing. Yeah. And this. And I had 12 weeks to do it. I understand that most of the design is going to year, and I'm working full time by now. I started my practise long commencing in 2015, so I'm working full time and I have to sketch and come up with these designs and get them made. I'm fine. Go shopping for fabric and get it all done and have fun. The models. I was very clear that I wanted all my models to have this disability, and I believe that was the very first time that we had an all visible, visible disability cast of models on a national runway. And then I was very happily approached by the founder, CEO and founder of the Christina Stevens label. So that saw the logic in in collaborating in a partnership rather than competing. First task of the event was to design co-design a collection to go in the very first adaptive clothing runway at Australia at Afterpay's Australian Fashion Week in May this year.

Peta [00:11:51] Yes, I watched that online. It was amazing. And I have to say, I will be forever dreaming of the ball gown that Lisa Cox wore on the. It was she just looked beautiful.

Carol [00:12:04] Oh, my God. Lisa could make us a sexy look. Amazing. She's beautiful inside and out and such a talent. The inspiration for that collection was I'd been on a call in America, I believe, a fashion Zoom conference, and there was a gentleman that was soon to marry his fiance. He was not that long injured and his fiancee was able bodied and they were all teasing him at the end of this Zoom meeting about all the wedding nights coming up. And I was very low with it for a while. And let me just stop. You could have heard a pin drop, he said. Yeah, he said, but I'll never know what it's like to unwrap my bride. And I just immediately felt something. I thought, Oh, that's not right. I've got to have a go at this. This is a problem that needs to be solved. You know, intimacy is something that's very much misunderstood, I think, by the able bodied community. And I'm certainly speaking from my own perspective, I can only speak from my own perspective. You know, it changes are required and new. You know, it is different. But every level of intimacy that's possible should be should be opened as an avenue. So I had the wonderful Kerry model for me or for us, for the Christina Stevens label and designed lingerie for the wedding night. Of course, that was all magnetic and allowed this partner, this gentleman, would have been able to easily disrobe his bride. And once I designed the I worked backwards. Once I designed the launch right to the end of the wedding night. I had to work backwards. So Lisa's wedding, Lisa's red dress was the wedding dress. And then I had the groom, which was Danish stuff, this nice palette bomber. And then we had some beautiful guests there as well. And the collection is called The Unwrapped Collection.

Peta [00:13:56] That's such a lovely story. I didn't know anything about that. It just brings more baby and deeper understanding of how important fashion can be and how important inclusive fashion can be. As someone who has always been in a wheelchair, having had cerebral palsy, I've always sort of been plus sized or like on the edge of plus size, considering I can't really exercise. And I've always felt quite excluded from the fashion industry, particularly when I was younger, let alone seeing somebody in a wheelchair. Within those fashion industries or being represented, can you explain to the audience your perspective of why it's so important to have disabled representation within the fashion industry?

Carol [00:14:48] For me, fashion goes to one's core sense of identity. It affects your confidence. It affects ethics, your mood. I really believe in the psychology of colour, in particular how it impacts my mood. But most importantly, I think fashion and how you appear to the world has a direct impact on how people treat you and more more importantly, how they perceive and constantly underestimate you. Our end game. Jesse, my question assumes that we want to see. We want to see adaptive clothing go mainstream. You know, why not have the wonderful experience that everybody else can have? Go to lunch with your girlfriends, go for coffee, then go and do some shopping in change rooms that are accessible. Why? Why can't there be adaptive clothing there for you to actually touch and feel the experience? For me personally, buying adaptive clothing is is put 100% online. Yeah. For me, you know it has always been online. I want, I would like to see mainstream. Open up their doors and welcome adaptive clothing in the same way that they've now accepted plus size clothing you know or non-gender specific clothing or beautiful First Nations clothing. I mean, they need to open the door and see the value. And when I think that this I put my business hat on. And I think, you know, it's not just a charitable, nice charitable thing to do. It's actually good business. Yeah. You know, community, we these are products we want to buy. Don't assume that we want that. We don't have the money to buy them. Don't assume that we're not capable of earning a living and that we're not capable of saving our money to purchase something nice. And certainly don't assume that that we would never want luxury. It might be a very special occasion. It might be a wedding, it might be mother of the bride. It might be your sisters getting by. You might be getting married. Why shouldn't you have access to the same beautiful things that that the able bodied community can have access to? You know, of course it's going to it's going to come at a cost. But I just I think it's so important for the fashion industry and mainstream fashion in particular, to to open their arms up and see this as a wonderful opportunity. Just you know, I talk about this all the time. You know, the cornerstone of the Christina Stephens label is inclusive design. There are certain features, for example, that that my disability requires. I look for my disability. But there's still so many, so many designs that we come up with that that look great on able bodied people just as well. Universal design is something that we very much want to embrace and embrace.

Peta [00:17:35] And so exciting. And from my perspective, if I could wear a ball gown every day of my life, I'm that sort of girl. So, you know. Well.

Carol [00:17:44] You and me both.

Peta [00:17:46] I'm sorry. I was going to ask you about your smoke and mirrors ball gown, because I did a bit of research and I never thought about that night before. And I think it would be really interesting for the audience to understand the sort of techniques that you in incorporate within your designs.

Carol [00:18:05] I use magnets and I use magnetic zips and it is specific to a to the wheelchair type. So for example, the ball gown that Lisa wore works well on her make and model chair so that the fabric doesn't get caught up in the wheels. I was always a little twinge of in the I guess when I'd see someone that had more function than me that could wear a ball gown because they had the triceps to lift themselves up and someone could then pull the dress down underneath them. With my level of injury. You know, I'm like the princess and the P for many, many years after my injury, my seat set to be ironed on my bed because I wrinkles in the sheet would cause no end of nerve pain. So I definitely couldn't sit on fabric. So it was very, very hard. So I had to figure out a workaround. So many of my dress, the dresses, all of the dresses are in fact in two pieces, but designed hopefully to look like it's a seamless transition. So it's one garment. Temperature control is really tough for me. So I try to I try to think about that when I'm designing and space, you know, I'm plus size and to get a jacket or mean I imagine I watch girls that use manual chairs and I see them that they're moving in the rotation of the elbow and especially because they're in a manual chair, they're often really very well developed up here. So they they've got a lot of muscle and then they go to put a jacket on and then they find themselves, you know, squeezing into a sleeve so that the jacket fits everywhere else, but it doesn't. The sleeves look like it's a size smaller and. I'm very proud of the things I'm proud to be a part of. Stuart Stevens is the only disability owned adaptive clothing label that I'm aware of, and we're both extremely passionate about wanting to know as much as possible about our consumers. I'm learning all the time and I ask anyone, anyone that writes to Christina Stevens with feedback. I'm always quick to read it and think, God, if I thought of that, that's really good idea.

Peta [00:20:20] Going along that line. What do you wish people better understood about living the disability for you?

Carol [00:20:27] The thing that I wish the able bodied community understood and appreciated is that they are doing a terrible disservice to underestimate the abilities of people with disability. I always say, you know, I say I've looked at the board of an organisation and very often I will say, you know, a bunch of handsome, good looking faces looking back at me. I don't always see someone in there that looks like me. Now, that doesn't mean that there has there isn't an invisible disability in the boardroom, but I very much believe that nothing says disability is welcome here more than disability from the top. You know, being able to see that this company, this organisation, they walk the walk, they talk the talk, but they're genuine. I know as a woman, I like the young lawyer. I had to work twice as hard to get the same recognition as most of the blokes I was working with. From my own experience, the same applies with having a disability. You know, I felt that I would work twice as hard for my clients, go above and beyond for my clients, and hopefully now above and beyond for now, the consumers of the casino savings and the clothing that we're putting out, because I want to be the best at what I do, you know, which is just which is extremely driven to prove ourselves. People with disability, I believe.

Peta [00:21:51] I agree with you. I think often I feel like saying to people constantly, I've achieved all the things I've achieved plus the barriers that I face every day. And I think that should give me more credit, not less.

Carol [00:22:07] Yeah. We achieve a lot and we strive hard. And I was given the gift of discovering a creative, artistic side that I never knew existed. I just felt differently. After my injury. I had a level of empathy that I didn't know I lacked. And I guess I bring the same passion to motherhood as well. I, I definitely think I'm a better mum than I would have been pre-injury just because of how career driven I was. And I'm only speaking for myself. But I, you know, I was so wrapped up in all the trimmings of the career and the work that I was doing and the importance of doing a high court appeal or whatever it might have been or and I thought, no, this is very different. I my my world revolves around our son. In many ways. I don't know if I had my life time over again. I don't think I'd change it. That's not to say that if a cure came in tomorrow for paralysis, that that I would be thinking, oh, well, yeah, I'll line up for that, you know, but I would first have to weigh up what were the risks and all the rest of it, because I have such a wonderful full life as a wife and mom and with my career as it is. You know, there's a lot about being disabled that I don't like and that I and I know there are many in the disability community that are that totally embrace the disability and that's wonderful for them. But me personally, there's a lot about my disability that I don't like. So it's a it's a it's a I guess it's, it's, it's not static. You know, I move back and forth. There's a lot I wouldn't change. There's a lot I'm grateful for that my disability has given me. But I guess most of all, one of the wonderful things like my disability is given me is the the wonderful people I've got to meet, the wonderful people I have in my life, this, these, these incredible people that inspire me to keep going and keep fighting.

Peta [00:24:09] What would you like the future to be for people with disabilities? What do you envision?

Carol [00:24:15] Oh, one word sums it up inclusive. The world has to be inclusive, and people like you and myself and other others in our community are pushing and working very, very hard. We need to keep fighting because it's the only way we're going to be heard. You said you watched the The Australian Fashion Week. I didn't realise just how emotional it would be for me, but just to I never thought that I would get there. When they called us out at the at the final bout, I just burst into tears because it was just such an emotional win and took it had taken so long to get there. And I believe I believe there's no turning back now. You know, mainstream fashion. Here we come.

Peta [00:25:03] Thank you so much for talking to me today. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's been a pleasure.

Carol [00:25:08] Oh, it's been my pleasure. Thank you very much for asking me.

Peta [00:25:15] Didn't I tell you Carol's amazing. Thanks so much for listening to this episode. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, can I encourage you to leave a writing interview? If you listen on Apple Podcasts or share it with a friend. The more people know that this podcast exists, the more I'm able to do it into the future. Thank you so much for listening. And until next week. Have a good one, guys. By.


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