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  • Writer's picturePeta

Special Episode: Rachel Shugg The Disabled Fashion Designer & JAM The Label

Rachel Shugg is a queer disabled woman who understands adaptive and inclusive fashion better than most.

Rachel is a qualified fashion designer now providing a level of insight to function and form to designs that only a disabled person could to well known adaptive brand JAM The Label.

If you would like to attend The Closing Runway at The PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival on the 11th of March 2023 at either 7:30PM or 8:30PM you can find more information about the show here:

Connect with Rachel:

Explore JAM The Label:

Connect with Peta:

Instagram: @petahooke


Episode Transcript:

Peta [00:00:02] Hello, 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 is Peta. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week is another special episode to the Papal Melbourne Fashion Festival. I have the amazing Rachel Shugg on the podcast for you today. Rachael is the designer for JAM, the label, an amazing, inclusive and adaptive fashion label that's run here in Melbourne, Australia. Rachael and I talk about a lot, but it's no surprise that our main focus was our mutual love fashion. So without any further ado, let's hand over to Rachael.

Rachel [00:00:57] Hi, my name is Rachel. I'm 23. I'm a queer woman who is a fashion designer. There's an interest in accessible and inclusive design. I also have a disability called Kidd Syndrome, which stands for Keratitis Ichthyosis deafness Syndrome. And it's pretty rare. And it affects my eyesight, my skin, my immune system and my hearing. So I'm deaf and I use a cochlear implant. On top of that. I also have something called muscular neuropathy, which affects my muscles, particularly in my lower legs. So I am a manual wheelchair user.

Peta [00:01:32] I'm so excited to talk to you because as you would know, just because I have a disability doesn't mean I know what it's like for everyone to live with a disability. And I really think you have an amazing perspective that I can't wait to get into with you today. But first and foremost, we're both lovers of fashion, so I want to start with love, a mutual loves, and that is fashion. So have you always loved fashion, and where has that passion for you come from?

Rachel [00:02:00] Yeah. I think from the age of like ten, maybe like having this book with really weird looking of outlines of mannequins, and I used to colour them in and design outfits for them. But when I was, I think, maybe 13 or 14. One of my mates, Chloe, told me that she wanted to be a fashion designer, and that was at the age where I didn't really know who I wanted to be. And I was having a bit of like an identity crisis that you do in the age of 13. And I was like in that stage of copying everybody. So naturally I said I wanted to be one too, and I just like, stuck.

Peta [00:02:39] My goodness. Well, I thought I was pretty good at finding my approximate 2928. But you finding a passionate 13 is amazing. Now, did you find finding clothes when you were younger?

Rachel [00:02:54] Yeah. So my disability, I guess the one affecting my mobility, was progressive and didn't start manifesting until I was about six or seven. And I can remember trying to find shoes that wouldn't hurt my feet to cause me further pain. I was wearing ASOS and braces on my legs. My parents and I just couldn't find anything that would certainly help me or that I actually wanted to wear. And nowadays what I wear depends on my mobility aids and what I'm using. So if I'm on my crutches, I have to have something with like 10,000 pockets to put in because I just can't hold the stuff in my hands because like a bag is hard to hold and it can throw off my balance. But if I'm using my wheelchair, I can't have anything that's too loose. Otherwise it'll get trapped in my front. Cast the wheels, which are the tube, the wheels at the front of my wheelchair. Sometimes the back pocket of pants can be really upsetting for somebody who's going to be sitting down all the time because the extra fabric can lead to a slow build up and that can be really damaging to somebody. Long sleeved tops. A big issue for me, too, because as someone who uses their hands a lot, I like to push the sleeves up the away on my hands to avoid getting to take off my wheels. My clothes can like rub on the chair or my crutches and can ruin the structural integrity, which is my greatest pet peeve as someone who loves clothes. I think the fabric feel is also a bit of an issue for me as someone who has the thesis and has a heightened skin sensitivity. If the fabric is like scratchy or if a tag is scratchy and it can be really irritating, it was a flare up, which has long term consequences. Good, accessible design is something that someone can wear with ease and just as importantly, want to wear. First and foremost, it's about what the customer or consumer needs and giving them a garment that will meet their needs. So when I'm designing, I'll often start with the end user in mind and think about how they would open and close the garment to get into it. Would they zip it up or would they back it up or would they snap it into place? Would they pull it over their heads? What would be the body movement involved in that? What can they do and how can we utilise this to their advantage? How would the world go about in their world existing in that comment? What could limit them? So, for example, as a wheelchair user, I move my arms and my shoulders a lot, so I need the extra room to move about in it. And the Jackets and the Blazers can be a bit of a challenge for me because they don't allow for the movement. So I often opt for stretchy material or oversized boxy cuts that them at the moment. Often topics from natural factors are the best because they let you believe and can be quite forgiving and soft against the skin. Anything that has a bit of stretching as well, like bamboo. Cotton is just fantastic. I know GM has some beautiful T-shirts that have made out of bamboo cotton and have a bit of stretch in them, and it feels like doing better on the site. It's just so.

Peta [00:06:08] Soft. I'm so thrilled to hear that you're now working with Jim, the label. What's that process been like when you got the call that you got the opportunity? It must be just a pinch me sort of moment.

Rachel [00:06:23] Oh, my God. It was. And thank you so much. It has been such a pleasure and a privilege working with you. I'm so lucky that Molly and Emma, the co-founders of Jam, took me on. And they are just, you know, so passionate about this issue. And it's been so great working with them because I think we all doing quite different things to the table. They come from the backgrounds of O.T., you know, occupational therapists. I know a lot about that side of things, whereas I come from backgrounds of fashion but also have experience of living with different disabilities. So yeah, it's just been such a rewarding experience working with them.

Peta [00:06:59] I'm particularly thrilled because it's great to see somebody with a disability also helping create fashion. What do you think you bring to the process of the design process as somebody with a disability?

Rachel [00:07:14] It's weird because our design process will often start from a specific accessibility requirements in mind, and then we'll sort of go back and forth about design and I'll sort of pitch them a couple of different designs and how I think we could include function and style within the sort of body for things. I think we've got function down, but I think we really need to sort of think about the aesthetics of clothing as well, which is a very difficult thing to do because everyone's so different in that taste. Of course, as inclusive as we strive to be, no one design can suit everyone. So ensuring that we have something that can suits a large group of people is very important.

Peta [00:07:56] The other thing I'd use, which is very exciting, is that the label is going to be at the Papal Melbourne Fashion Festival this year. I believe you're at the closing runway on the 11th of March. Can you tell me a little bit about that, Rachel?

Rachel [00:08:12] Yeah, I know that we're so excited. We've got two shows that night, so if you want to come, you can come to either of them. I think once at 730, one's at 830. And we've just had such a brilliant experience of like designing for this show because we've sort of tried to push the boundaries on what we could do. Of course, making it all completely accessible to everyone, but really sort of embracing the fun and the bold whilst also being, you know, inclusive and the sort of all manner of things really embracing the diversity of openness, bodies. I can't really say too much about the designs at the moment. You'll just have to wait and see until they come out.

Peta [00:08:51] Well, I can't wait to be there, particularly with it being an adaptive clothing brand and a disabled design of a vogue like it's such an amazing achievement. Congratulations.

Rachel [00:09:03] Thank you so much.

Peta [00:09:04] That's so. As we've mentioned, you're a qualified fashion designer. Have you come up against any resistance in the industry? I really hope you felt welcomed as you deserve to be.

Rachel [00:09:18] I'm only a recent graduate and have only been working in the industry for about a year, but I have been trying to crack into the industry ever since the beginning of my interest in fashion. The fashion industry can be really exclusive and alienating and hard to get into, and that's just in general, not even considering disabilities or any sort of marginalised body. But speaking from personal experience, no one wanted to hire me. When I was at uni, we were encouraged to find internships and gain first hand knowledge and experience, and all I ever wanted to do was to be able to work and prove my worth and learn from this experience, because I think that's one of the best ways to learn is hands on learning. And I say that as a white cis female who was brought up in a stable middle class home. And so I have an enormous amount of privilege, but it wasn't until I graduated that I secured an internship with GM and that then involved into a job. Yeah, the acceptance and encouragement has just been so great and heartwarming, particularly from Molly and Hammer.

Peta [00:10:23] When I talk about the future, what do you see the future as far as adaptive fashion? Yeah.

Rachel [00:10:30] So at the moment, well, accessible fashion is on the rise. One of its barriers is that it's still extremely limited in the diversity of styles and the functionality. The lack of adaptive wet clothing available can leave the wearer with a limited selection of clothing to choose from, and then they are forced to make a choice. Do they choose between limited availability of accessible and inclusive clothes that suit them but they might not want to wear? Or do they choose something that isn't designed for their body type and that can have several different consequences, the choice of it being that the style doesn't suit them, which, you know, can lead to the individual feeling insecure and the lack of identity expression. And it can take away their independence as they might need a tag to assist them in the process of dressing and undressing. So I would love to see the more inclusive clothing out there. I would also like to see more brands and companies making and producing clothing that is inclusive to people and follows the principles of universal design with an aim of like making it functional and wearable to a whole group of people. I think the key with accessible design is working with people, not just for people, particularly the consumer market, with the target market that you're designing for. If we had more jobs and more opportunities within the industry for people with disabilities and other minority communities, I sort of like a diverse and multidisciplinary voices would be created where everybody's experiences and values would be heard. I also think that it would be a way to make change at a sort of systematic level, and that would perhaps be able to counteract some of the tokenistic aspects of trying to make the fashion industry or any sort of industry, for that matter, a more inclusive and ethical space. I think the fashion industry is a you know, it's a real reflection on our environment and society. I think that sometimes it can be perceived as frivolous and inconsequential. But in my experience, in my opinion, it's not. I believe strongly that fashion can change perceptions and encourage change and that it has to like it absolutely has to exist in harmony with us and the environment. And it's not surprising that some of us, some of our past experiences of the fashion industry hasn't been accepting of us because the world isn't always accepting of us. It can be really alienating. And, you know, some aspects of society, not all, but most, I would say, still reflects this medical model of disability. By excluding us. And the medical model of disability asks us to change ourselves and our bodies to fit the world around them, when really the world should adopt a more social model of disability that asks the environment to change itself, to accept those disabilities. I think it's it's not our bodies or as the disabled as it's the environments around us. So to become more embracing and accepting of who we are because we are not the problem, we are absolutely not the problem. But I think the fashion industry holds a huge amount of power to instigate this change to become more inclusive.

Peta [00:13:56] What do you wish people better understood about living with a disability? Rachel. I'm going to love.

Rachel [00:14:02] This question and there's just so much. It's just like with anything. There's so much diversity and experiences, but people with disabilities and no two persons or people's experiences will be exactly the same. I think perhaps what I was saying before is that it's not just as the body is that impetus from the world that we live in. It's the external world that marginalises us and makes it harder for us to have equal opportunity and basic human rights. We constantly have to stifle everything all at once. I also think it can be really hard to try and understand somebody's lives experience when you don't share those same experiences. So I would, I guess, encourage people to consider the day to day life and how do they occupy that space? Is it that you have your coffee cups stored up high and you find it hard to eat? How would somebody with a different experience of living or moving about interact with that space? How would somebody who is blind navigate that space? What about somebody who is of short stature, somebody who uses an electric wheelchair or a manual wheelchair? Somebody who was deaf for a divergence or autistic? I guess I would try and encourage everyone to take that sort of one step further to just consider a body, but you don't have the personal interaction with and that you don't see or think about every day. And we can start to think about how best to include people around us. I think that we could start to see an increased awareness and understanding of the, you know, diversity and individuality, this experience.

Peta [00:15:48] Well, I have to say, you're clearly such a strong, passionate voice in the disability community. You will certainly hope so. Very, very excited to see what you do in the future. And you might have already answered this question. But is there anything you don't like about living with a disability?

Rachel [00:16:09] I think it's a great question and there's a lot I think the stigma and the social expectations that people who don't have a disability can have on people who do is really tough to deal with. I often find myself trying to interact with people who have a lot of rude assumptions and perhaps a lot of internalised idealism, and it's not my job to try and prove them wrong, but I find myself doing it in order to gain my respect. Society still holds such a high currency and able bodied people. That leaves people, I guess, further marginalised them. Perhaps they already are. It comes back to this sort of like a subscription of the medical model. Disability means that the world isn't built for us. And again, I say that as a, you know, a white person who grew up in a very supportive household and two parents who were just phenomenal. So I moved and, you know, still move about my environment with a great deal of ease and a lot of privilege. But it is still a really unwelcoming environment. And sometimes I don't feel welcome in this environment, and it's really hard to exist in a body that doesn't want you there or make space for you. And it's really like, if that's my experience, what would it be like for somebody who doesn't have the same amounts of privilege that I have?

Peta [00:17:24] Is there anything you like or even love about having your disability?

Rachel [00:17:30] Yeah. There's so much. I think it allows me to be able to make a change within the skills. Not that you have to have a disability in order to make a meaningful change. You absolutely don't. But it gives me an insight and a different perspective on things and how people can experience. They wound. And it allows me to belong to this incredible community that is so encouraging and accepting of people and their bodies. And if I you know, if I didn't have a disability, I wouldn't be here today speaking to you. And if you didn't have a disability, you wouldn't have this podcast and you would be making such monumental shifts within the industry at the moment. So I think it's I think there's great things to it.

Peta [00:18:12] Finally, what you wish for the future for people with disabilities.

Rachel [00:18:17] I would wish for anyone who has, you know, all who have has and potentially will have a disability to be embraced and accepted to be who they are. Sounds a bit cliche in essence, but I can't understand why we don't have that now, because there isn't any downside to being more inclusive. Why is it such a struggle? Some of us who exists in a day to day life, from jobs to transport to infrastructure, to architecture, to relationships, to education, to health care. And it is completely ridiculous that so many people are denied access to these things. Every time I call up Centrelink about my jobseeker payments or any sort of payment, I feel like I'm entitled to have a disability. I'm constantly jumping to sleep and I do have the same experience. Every time I try and catch a tram and I say inaccessible tram, but there's no accessible tram stop. And I think, how on earth am I supposed to get onto this slightly accessible channel, but it only meets me halfway. It's ridiculous. And it's very hard to sort of grapple with these things. But I do think that change is done systematically and it comes down to education on disability, and that's through every single level of education. You know, books, TV shows, amazing podcasts like this. The education in the school systems, I think we sort of we need to sort of start dismantling the sort of internal ableism that we have.

Peta [00:19:45] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it. If you're interested in attending the closing runway for the Papal Melbourne Fashion Festival, I've left all the details in the description. I hope to see you there. I'm going to be front row clapping Emma, Molly and Rachel. On if you did enjoy this episode. Can I encourage you to leave in writing and review on Apple Podcasts or share the show on social media? It helps more people find the podcast. So until next week. Have a good one, guys. I'd like to pay my respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, but especially to the Bunurong people. Where this podcast was recorded.


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