In 2010, unless your name is Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, it’s unlikely anyone is going to declare you a pioneer. Though she’s not quite as famous, Toronto-based fashion designer Izzy Camilleri is a comparable trailblazer and her innovations are impacting lives, albeit among a smaller constituency.
Camilleri designs and creates a line of clothing for women who use wheelchairs called the IZ Collection of Adaptable Clothing. That may not sound revolutionary until you stop to consider how specialized, varied and numerous the needs of people living in wheelchairs can be and how woefully underserved they are by the mainstream fashion industry.
“Since her line has come out, I even look at T-shirts differently,” her client Barbara Turnbull told Samaritanmag. “Hers feel good on. She chooses the fabrics very carefully, using ones that are not only comfortable to wear, but are kinder to the skin than a lot of what’s available commercially.”
Camilleri knows the fashion industry well. She went into haute couture right after graduating from fashion school in 1984 and has since dressed such A-listers as Jennifer Lopez, Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, David Bowie, Fergie, Mark Wahlberg and Meryl Streep (in The Devil Wears Prada). But as Camilleri explains from her studio, normal ready-to-wear clothing just doesn’t cut it when you’re strapped to a seat and don’t have independent use of your arms and legs.
Dressing can actually present a safety hazard for disabled women who may fall from their chairs while caregivers struggle to maneuver them into conventional items.
What’s more, women seated in wheelchairs need ordinary amounts of fabric in the front of their coats and suits, but not in the back or at the sides where the excess just pools around their waists. And they need warmth with function — fabrics like satin are too slippery and cold; they need something that offers grip and is super-gentle on the skin.
Camilleri’s functional custom designs — jackets with truncated backs and sides that separate into pieces that are then re-attached by zippers — consider the dressing and wearing needs of wheelchair-bound women in the workplace and beyond, especially younger, fashion-conscious women loathe to surrender style along with their mobility.
The clothing, which can be ordered from the web site, www.izzycamilleri.com, is ingenious, affordable and looks fantastic, and most of the items come in a range of colours. The collection includes elegant, high-end pieces such as a leather jacket ($435), a raincoat ($245) and wool swing coat ($325) to more casual, everyday items, such as a basic short sleeve t-shirt ($24), turtleneck ($39), bathrobe ($85), denim skirt ($105 lined; $75 unlined) and jeans ($132 lined; $99 unlined). She even offers stay-up pantyhose ($9.50) to a catheter cover ($5.95) to conceal tubing, and sleeve guards ($29) for self-wheeling to protect arms from rain and snow.
In terms of price point, Camilleri says her line is actually slightly cheaper than retail. The leather jacket, for instance, would likely sell closer to $1000. That said, she acknowledges that there is a perception of things being more expensive when custom-made, but Adaptable Clothing is unique because of the lack of material in the back and other considerations, something that is welcomed by its wearers.
As is often the case with such things, the idea for the IZ Collection of Adaptable Clothing wasn’t so much something Camilleri went looking for.Rather, it came about coincidentally through encounters with two women suffering from profound spinal cord injuries: Turnbull, a Toronto Star journalist who, at age 18, was shot during a robbery at the convenience store where she worked, and Carolyn Pioro, a onetime circus aerialist who was seriously injured in a fall.
“About six years ago I met Barb through Bernadette Morra, then-fashion editor at the Star. She wanted a shearling cape,” Camilleri recalls. “I had never met anyone in a wheelchair let alone someone like Barb who was quadriplegic. At first I was all thumbs. But I started making stuff for her regularly over the course of about five years.
“A couple of years after I met her I was thinking about designing clothes for women in wheelchairs. Barb put a small focus group together with some other women in wheelchairs and everyone spoke about clothes and wants and needs and desires and problems. My head was just spinning. Everyone had such specific needs that I walked away thinking I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t generalize and come up with something that would be appropriate for the needs of a majority that are seated. So I put the idea away.
“Then last year I met Carolyn. She needed a winter coat. I learned that a lot of people in wheelchairs don’t own winter coats because it’s just too much trouble putting them on and off throughout the day, unlike clothing which goes on in the morning and stays on until night. As for full-length winter coats, forget it because then you get this great big puddle of fabric at the back and at the sides. So I made Carolyn a winter coat, which turned out really attractive, not just about function.
“A few months later, Carolyn was going to celebrate her 30th birthday and her mom contacted me about making a leather piece for her. We went through the same process of designing it together and after I gave it to her, I was driving home, feeling so excited in knowing that I gave her a lot more than a leather piece. I gave her a sense of dignity and looking good — stuff that most of us just take from granted when we get dressed.
“I had an epiphany. Outerwear! That’s where I can generalize since that’s something everyone has to wear. So that’s where I started. I emailed Carolyn when I got back asking her to suggest websites of places that make adaptive clothing but before she could respond I Googled it myself and everything I found was either geared to seniors or really institutional looking. Carolyn agreed that was her experience as well.
“So from there I thought I could expand it to include basics — jeans, a blazer, a bathrobe, suits, dress pants, simple T-shirts. I mean, you can get a t-shirt anywhere, but when you’re in a wheelchair for a long time, your organs start settling so you get thicker around the waist. My T-shirts are all cut A-line to accommodate that. So every single piece in the line has been thought through.”
Now that she’s conquered the design intricacies, the next big step is marketing. She has dedicated herself to the line for the past eight months. At the moment, the IZ Collection is available only through the web site, though she has talked to retailers about possible distribution. But she admits, “It’s very hard to gauge the market and to figure out what would be an appropriate amount of stock to have. There’s just no precedent here.”
Moreover, all Camilleri’s pieces are custom designed, “and I think there is a hesitation to have something custom-made, which is why I hope to get some stock items available. Next up will be men’s wear and children’s wear.” There is a need for office-appropriate attire for men and women in the work force, as well as play clothes for children and trendy, statement pieces for teens.
But Camilleri acknowledges the word is getting out, thanks to testimonials from clients like Turnbull. “It’s completely impossible for me to purchase pants, so hers are invaluable. It also feels good to put on an item of clothing that has Izzy’s style stamped on it. It was surreal that I was able to try on multiple jackets without having to shift my position to put them on and off. The scope of her line really took me by surprise — with bath capes, rainwear, button-down shirts. Every detail is so thoughtful.”
With an estimated 170,000 Canadians using wheelchairs — Camilleri says that globally, there could be up to 100 million people that either use a wheelchair or need to — adaptive clothing is, sadly, a growth market.
“The web is a huge asset. I have a client right now from Greece. I’ve had one from Australia, from the UK and from the U.S. And one really exciting thing — Oprah’s O Magazine is slated to feature me in the June issue. So I don’t know what to expect. It could explode or continue at a snail’s pace.
“It’s just so inspiring meeting these people and I feel like I can put my talent to really good use. It took someone like myself who has the training with the pattern drafting to come up with this. It was really hard to work out all the logistics. But the personal satisfaction and gratification is huge. I feel like I can do some good with what I know. I mean, I can do other things as well — I don’t have to just do this. But this is so much more meaningful.”