Not content with the fashion world’s disregard of the disabled community, Grace Stratton decided to do something about it. She tells Louise Richardson about her groundbreaking business and dream for an inclusive society.
Tackling everyday situations in a wheelchair isn’t easy, but trailblazer and entrepreneur Grace Stratton is using her own experience to help others.
She’s startlingly candid and describes herself as “incredibly dogged” – something that’s readily confirmed by those who know her. So it’s no surprise that Grace, 20, has been widely recognised for her achievements to date, earning a raft of accolades since leaving school and embarking on an ambitious and extremely busy path in life.
The talented woman is working towards a double degree in law and communications at Auckland University of Technology, while also running her groundbreaking business, All is for All, and its online platform.
“My mother once explained that she had a sense something was different during her pregnancy with me, but that somehow she also knew instinctively that whatever happened, it would all be OK,” says Grace.
When her baby daughter arrived 10 weeks early, Debbie Stratton’s hunch was realised. Grace had a difficult start in life and was diagnosed at age one with cerebral palsy, which affects her movement, muscle control, posture and balance.
Grace has happy memories of growing up on the family sheep farm in Auckland’s Waimauku, although she admits she’s not especially fond of animals, nor particularly outdoorsy.
She says Debbie and her father Francis were incredibly hard workers. In addition to running the farm, they owned a butchery, and their strong work ethic rubbed off on both Grace and her brother Jordan, 24.
Grace graduated from a special buggy to a wheelchair around the time she started school, and although she saw other children jumping and climbing and wondered why she wasn’t able to do the same, she was a quick learner who made good friends.
“I fitted in, but in my own way,” she says. Grace and her friend Angela Bevan started All is for All in 2019, after meeting at New Zealand Fashion Week. Its aim is to make fashion more inclusive for people with disabilities, but it’s about more than that.
The concept was inspired by a pair of pants Grace ordered online, only to struggle to get them on and require assistance, which she found extremely frustrating. All is for All enjoyed almost immediate success, with buy-in from local designers – including Stolen Girlfriends Club, Kate Sylvester and Twenty-seven Names – who committed to considering the needs of disabled customers when designing and marketing their garments.
“Fashion impacts people’s thoughts, so it was a good place to start,” says Grace. “But these days we look at a much bigger picture, which is all about reframing disability so nobody sees it as a negative thing, and so disabled people are recognised as equals in a society that acknowledges their skills and talents.
Fashion impacts people’s thoughts, so it was a good place to start. But these days we look at a much bigger picture
“And they don’t need to be spoken for – in fact, it’s essential that they’re part of discussions and have their input valued.”
In 2019, Grace was named on InStyle magazine’s list of 50 Badass Women, and she was presented with her most recent honour, the prestigious Attitude ACC Supreme Award, at the 2020 Attitude Awards held in early December. The annual gala event celebrates the achievements and successes of New Zealanders in the disability sector.
“What we do at All for is All is about creating space,” Grace said after celebrating her win. “It’s not about me or any one person, but the work we can achieve together. I think it’s really important that we create bridges and understanding.”
Grace knows that her cerebral palsy is connected to her premature birth. “But I’ve come to believe that it happened for a reason,” she admits. “I’m lucky that although my mobility is limited, I’m very resilient and articulate with a strong sense of personal identity. I feel that doing what I do, advocating for other disabled people and helping transform attitudes right across society, is my life’s calling.”
That calling has focused attention exactly as Grace hoped it would, and All is for All has garnered a lot of support, both locally and internationally. Public relations firm SweeneyVesty was behind her right from the start, providing desk space in Auckland’s CBD and input from expert communicators. At the team’s recent Christmas party, Jane Vesty – one of the company’s founders who’s now living in the US – connected remotely and revealed how All is for All’s message has had a tangible impact on SweeneyVesty’s businesses, with appropriate attention now paid to accessibility and inclusion awareness at all of the company’s bases worldwide.
“It makes me proud that All is for All’s work around clothing design and equipping disabled people to achieve goals – such as walking at NZ Fashion Week and modelling for our e-commerce side – was successful, and now it’s exciting that we’re growing into something so much more expansive and being widely recognised,” says Grace.
“Those early days were vital in terms of building positive attitudes about fashion, but again, the difficulties disabled people encounter are far more diverse. So right now I’m finding myself doing a lot more work around issues such as insurance and banking, where disabled people are often classed as ‘vulnerable’ customers, and aren’t respected in the way that they should be.
“We’re not asking for special treatment, but what I dream of seeing is a society in which everybody is included and regarded as equal, and disabilities are never framed in a negative way.”
I dream of seeing a society in which everybody is included and regarded as equal, and disabilities are never framed in a negative way
It goes without saying that downtime is a rarity in Grace’s life these days. “When I’m not working with All is for All, I’m generally studying for my degree,” she says. “But I’m a Netflix addict and I do enjoy catching up with friends for a coffee and some clothes shopping whenever I can.”