Grace Stratton on making change in the fashion industry

Grace Stratton interview

Grace Stratton, co-founder of All is for All. Image supplied.

It’s been a very big year so far for All is for All co-founder and university student Grace Stratton who launched the social change agency back in March. Since then their online store has garnered international attention for its unique approach to shopping allowing those with access needs to make considered choices on what they buy to wear. Grace and her co-founder Ange Bevan also launched All is for All’s modeling agency which saw models with access needs cast in New Zealand Fashion Week’s shows and take to the runway for the first time. All is for All has taken up a consultancy role advising businesses and organisation on how they can work better with those with access needs, not to mention Grace was named on InStyle magazine’s list of 50 Badass Women for 2019.

We caught up with Grace to find out how she handles the fashion industry, how it felt to see All is for All’s models on the NZFW runway and what changes she would like to see in future?

How has your upbringing and identity shaped how you view and have handled the fashion industry and how do you keep it in perspective?
My parents have been married for 33 years. Every single good quality I have, I have learnt from them, or they have put me on a path to seek out those qualities. They’re stable and have taught me that I needed to set a high bar, but that I’d have to work to reach it – and that’s how it should be. I was raised to value hard work; my Dad ran his own business for most of my childhood, and my using a wheelchair meant I had to learn to be resilient – I once spent 12 weeks in two casts after an operation, only to find out that after that time the bones didn’t heal, those times in my life aren’t the focus of my work at all, so I don’t discuss them much but they’ve definitely influenced how I work.

I’m also 100% sure that if I started having a big head someone would pull me into line, probably Ange!  I think there is a difference between having an ego and knowing your work is good – I am very proud of our work, I know it is good, but equally – I have so much to learn and always will, the trick that I subscribe to is working with people who are smarter than me, which all of my team is – SweeneyVesty who I work closely with who are our advisors,  and Angela Bevan who co-founded this work help me strive to be better, think bigger. Learn.

In terms of perspective, to do my accessibility-focused work, I stand on the shoulders of a lot of people – Dr Roberta Francis, of The Lucy Foundation being one; and Red Nicholson, whose a force in this space – I want my work to make them proud, and to consult our community as much as possible. None of this is about “me” but about the advancement of our community – that doesn’t mean that I will always bend to someone else’s will, but I keep my work in perspective by knowing that it’s not about me, it’s about the opportunities made for others – and about ensuring that I honour the other pieces of work occurring in this space.

Also, I feel it’s important to mention; that perspective is not far away when you’re a wheelchair user. I once went for coffee with a friend, only for my wheelchair to start moving and squish him against the wall so… that’s all the perspective I need! I’ll never be too cool for school if that was ever a worry.

How did it feel to see models from All is for All on the runway at NZFW and how did the week go for you?
I knew they’d kill it. Those young women are forces – and great models. It’s hard to articulate how it felt, because sometimes, disability – or at least the public view of it – can really tear you down. We’re quick to remind people with disabilities of what they can’t do, so having those young women out there, it did feel like a win. It felt like a signifier that All is for All is here, it is not moving, nor is it asking for space – it is making space and will succeed. I think all of the designers understood that including our models just made sense, they’re beautiful.

At the Zambesi 40th Anniversary show, it was really cool to the excitement of the person I took with me as they saw our models walk. It put it into perspective – I realised that this was a big deal for everyone who watched, and this would help to break down some of those implicit biases we carry.

There was a lot of work in the lead-up, in terms of making sure accessibility needs were met, I started these communications about a month before Fashion Week and then during the week I was on the ground making sure there were no problems. Keporah, from the New Zealand Fashion Week Team, was the person who handled all my communications, so a big thank you to her.

Grace Stratton interview

Models Amelia (left) and Sophia Malthus (right) on the runway at the Starving Artists and Havilah NZFW 2019 show. 

What changes do you think still need to be made in the industry and what would you like to go differently next year?
I’ve only been doing this six months, so I am by no means an expert in the industry; all I can do is look after my models, and advocate for them and the space as a whole, when the opportunity presents itself. I think from recent posts and commentary by some New Zealand models, we do need to look out more for everyone in the space, access need or not. My plan with All is for All is to continue the conversation, with Fashion Week being a part of that – it’s important we always strive for impeccably, authentically executed inclusion that is meaningful. We need to make sure that inclusion is an integral part of every industry – we have strides to go to make it to this place, but I will be pushing those efforts – and I have no plans to ever stop. I am not sure what the endpoint for these efforts are, because discussions evolve as the world learns. I think there might not ever be a time or space where we have reached peak inclusivity and there is no more to be done, but I think that’s exciting, because it means there is potential for more great work to be done and continued learning.

In terms of changes to be made, fashion has a symbiotic relationship with the media so I think we need to start giving platforms to more people with diverse points of view – we live in a time where more young people than ever, such as Greta Thunberg, are standing up, speaking out – and doing impeccable work – and yet, people who have significant media platforms are enabled to say things like “the only thing missing from [Greta’s] speech was a rendition of ‘the children are our future’. Speech like this is harmful and it comes from a place of a lack of education about neurodiversity, you can disagree with Greta Thunberg – of course – but the way to navigate that conversation is constructively. We should be building the confidence of our young people and having discussions based on arguments with substance, not just saying things because we can.

I think we can achieve a more diverse, influential, substance-driven conversation when we give different people platforms – globally some examples are Trevor Noah or Late Night with Lily Singh – we need to make sure that our national media landscape brings people to the table who can lead us into the future. We need to be having discussions so that we can build for diversity, not thinking of diversity once the building is done. I think by doing this in the media we will see the fashion industry build strength, but also many other consumer facing spaces too.

What has it been like working with the brands that cast All is for All models in their shows or have worked with you on your online store?
Amazing. All of the brands we work with have been fantastic – so supportive and willing to learn.

Grace Stratton interview

Models Rebecca Dubber (left) and Hannah Moore (right) from All is for All on the NZFW runway in the Resene Designer Runway Show.

A big part of diversity is representation, seeing people that look like you in the media and magazines, what does that representation mean to you personally?
Personally, representation is not just about seeing yourself in a space, but feeling valued there. I don’t want to be represented if you’re just going to slap a wheelchair user in the campaign simply for PR value, I want to look at that campaign or that wheelchair-using model and see how they fit in with the rest of your brand – representation and inclusivity should be authentic. If it is not, then brands need to re-look at their strategic plan and consider what they need to change or learn for inclusion to be authentic for them. I will have a discussion with any brand about this, I want people to ask me questions they might be afraid to ask – I want to have an open dialogue, so that we can achieve authentic inclusivity and meaningful representation in fashion.

I am not here to point fingers, I don’t come from that space – but we must know in 2019 that representation is about more than “putting someone” in a space. Translate this to a work environment, if you give a person with a disability a job at your workplace, but then the rest of your staff alienate that person, or the workplace doesn’t have a disabled toilet – then it may look to others, on the outside, that your workplace is representative and inclusive, but in actuality – that disabled person is having a terrible experience and is there because work is so hard for them to find, they’ll take what they can get. What we need to be doing is making sure that we equip brands to be authentic, to provide a meaningful experience – in a workplace this would translate to ensuring staff understand the needs of their co-workers and that there are accessible facilities.

Largely, I think New Zealand brands understand this. Zambesi has been doing it for years. RUBY have launched a free adaptions programme. Kate Sylvester is focused on conscious creation and the new brands on the ladder, Starving Artists Fund and Luke Campbell, to name a couple, execute representation and inclusion naturally, because these values are significant to our generation.

Where did the idea for All is for All come from and what has the reception been like since you launched the website earlier this year?
Amazing reception, positive challenges and advancement. It came from my desire to change the things in the industry that I saw. Also, fashion is something I love, so – that’s partly why I started it.

NZFW 2019 model casting

Model Rebecca Dubber from All is for All at the NZ Fashion Week 2019 casting. Image by James Yang.

Images by James Yang Photography and Getty Images.

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