Designer Expands Heavily Researched Clothing Line For People In Wheelchairs
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Like a masterful novel, the story of Toronto-based clothing designer Izzy Camilleri gets deeper and more engrossing with every successive chapter. But what makes Camilleri’s narrative really soar is the fact that it’s non-fiction… even though her clients might argue her work feels like a fairytale come true.
As Samaritanmag.com reported back in 2010, Camilleri creates highly specialized clothing for people with disabilities, specifically, those confined to wheelchairs. Equal parts fashion and science, IZ Adaptive Clothing is singular the world over: snazzy-looking yet functional and based on feedback from wearers, plus input from health professionals able to troubleshoot potentially hurtful design flaws like simple back pockets, which can cause pressure sores on seated wearers over time.
“I can honestly say there is nobody doing what I am doing, the way I am doing it,” Camilleri tells Samaritanmag.com. “There are other companies making adaptive clothing, but 98 percent of them are geared to the elderly and those in long-term care. The clothes look like they were designed in 1972.
“The two percent remaining make more stylish clothes, but they’re not as functional; the patterns haven’t been researched and modified to serve a seated clientele. It took me years to really understand the design challenges involved in this clothing, which is essential because you could potentially hurt someone.”
To say that Camilleri’s work is aimed at a niche clientele is an understatement. So the fact that she boldly decided to open a retail outlet (2955-B Dundas St. W.) in May last year to complement her website, while expanding the line and targeting a broader, more mainstream market — charting successes on all fronts — underscores the inventiveness (not to mention necessity) of Camilleri’s output.
As might be expected with Camilleri, the launch of the retail location was equal parts practicality and adventure. “Part of it had to do with needing to move my studio,” she offers.”I needed to get it out of my house which is where it was, and I needed to make it accessible.
“The retail location allowed me to combine my studio and my store in one location. And it’s more of a showroom than a store. As with the online store, people look at the samples and things are cut when the orders come in. We can customize pieces, but otherwise people order by size.
“If a department store had picked up the line [to sell] before I had opened a store, I really wouldn’t have been that helpful because I had nothing to go on,” she says, referencing her previous interview with Samaritanmag.com where the question of wider marketing opportunities arose.
“In retrospect, it’s good that I had the opportunity to do this on my own so that I can now go to a major retailer and say, ‘These are the items that are popular.’ It also gave me some time to fine-tune what I was doing.
“I am starting to develop a new line that I think will be easier for major department stores to consider. [No other retailers are currently carrying the IZ line]. It’s a line that wouldn’t be specific to people in wheelchairs, but would still be adaptive clothing for people who lacked dexterity from having a stroke or arthritis or other disabling conditions such as CP [cerebral palsy] or MS [multiple sclerosis] or ALS. People who have trouble with grip, with [managing] buttons or even with pulling up pants.
“When you talk about stroke and arthritis, it’s more mainstream, so that’s kind of the direction I am going in now with respect to retail. But even with this new line, I am in constant conversation with therapists and physiotherapists about the common problems people have so I can incorporate that into the work that I do. It’s more than just looking up the latest trends.”
The innovations don’t stop there. Camilleri has also expanded her existing line of wheelchair-friendly outerwear, pants, skirts, tops and capes to include bridal wear, evening gowns and men’s wear.
“I also have a product called ‘Keep Your Knees Together’ which helps women in wheelchairs whose legs tend to splay open, which is why they avoid skirts. I had heard these stories of women tying their knees together with shoelaces so I created this basic strap made from elastic and Velcro that keeps their knees together without being uncomfortable or binding.”
Almost a year into the retail store – and with nearly a decade of adaptive clothing design behind her - Is there anything Camilleri would have done differently?
“No, because this is like walking through the dark. There is nothing to compare it with, so we’re taking it slow and really learning as we go.
“It would be great if I won the lottery or married a richer man,” she laughs. “Finances are a constant struggle and I do other work to support this. We now sell [to clients] around the world. Not every day, but we’ve accumulated just shy of about 250 clients from as far away as Australia plus in Europe, the United States and across Canada.
“We’re starting to see these clients coming back. It’s a market that requires a lot of patience, but once they come here, they are so happy they did. They know they’re being taken care of and their needs are being addressed. And everybody leaves feeling grateful that we are doing this.
“I really love this work, and I love the fresh thinking.”
* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.