By Joan Leotta
What can you have in common with movie glitterati Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie, and Meryl Streep or hunks Mark Wahlberg and David Bowie? You, too, can look great in clothes designed by Izzy Camilleri — even from a seated position.
Camilleri, a Toronto-based designer, understands that everyone wants clothing that is professional, sophisticated, and sometimes sexy yet also totally wearable. In 2009, she debuted the IZ Adaptive Collection for people with disabilities. Available online at www.izadaptive.com, the Izzy Camilleri Adaptive Clothing line features a multitude of fashionable day and evening pieces. Shoppers in Toronto can browse her collection in an accessible retail space where wheelchair users can maneuver freely. The dressing room in the Toronto showroom is equipped to handle chair movement, and the staff is well versed in approaching wheelchair users to discuss modifications that may be needed to fit items more specifically to individual customers.
How IZ Adaptive evolved
Camilleri started her own design collection right after her graduating from Ontario’s Fashion Technique and Design Programme at Sheridan College in 1983. After ten years, she began providing custom design for the Canadian film and television industry. Her work brought her into the United States as a stylist on feature films, television, commercials, and music videos.
A friend familiar with her work asked her to design and make a shearling cape for Barbara Turnbull, a journalist who has been a paraplegic since her youth. Camilleri says, “It was then that I first became aware that there was a whole group of women who didn’t have access to the kind of clothing I made.” Through her connection to Turnbull, Camilleri learned about issues that people who use a chair have with clothing — putting items on and off, finding clothes that look good from a seated position but do not interfere with wheelchair mechanics, and fitting into fashionable choices that are suitable for the workplace.
Designing clothing for Turnbull set a whole design revolution in motion for Camilleri. If one wheelchair user was grateful for custom-fitted clothing, what about the rest of the seated community?
“Barbara held a focus group of women in wheelchairs, and I learned about issues that I had not even suspected!” Camilleri relates. “There were so many distinct needs that at first I did not think I could create a dress line that solved all of the issues that each person had expressed.” While continuing to design for Turnbull, Camilleri also began making custom clothing for another woman in a wheelchair. As a result of that experience, she says, “I began to see that there are ‘common threads’ in the design needs of all of these people who use wheelchairs.” So Camilleri put her talents to work creating an entire line, complete with skirts, tops, coats, jeans, pants, and robes — along with thoughtful, practical accessories.
What makes her clothing unique
One of the several issues Camilleri considers as part of her design strategy is how each feature contributes to the ease of getting dressed. Items like zippers can pose a real challenge to people with limited mobility, especially if they do not have helpers to dress them. Strategic zipper placement thus became a trademark of Camilleri’s adaptive designs. Easier fasteners, such as hidden Velcro strips or magnetic buttons, became another.
Many wheelchair users struggle to get into and out of coats, especially in public places without familiar helpers around. “Capes seem easier but they have their own issues and are not always the most attractive option,” says Camilleri. “For power chair users, some capes can interfere with the motor box.” Thanks to the information gained from the focus group and from her continual observation and research, Camilleri solves these issues with many different coat styles. For paraplegic wheelchair users, she offers coats cut in an L shape on each side, short in the back so as not to bunch up but with long front panels to keep the legs warm. For those with limited arm mobility, she offers coats with a “high back”—only a few inches of fabric and a short zipper—that allow helpers or even strangers to easily put on each of two warm side-front panels, button up the front, and then zip the pieces together behind neck and shoulders.
The capes Camilleri does design include considerate touches such as zippers at the side for ease of movement or even Velcro fasteners so the cape can be draped on easily but look like a dress coat. She also offers “arm socks” that match her short capes for added warmth. These accessories look like sweater sleeves but pull on and off like long, handless gloves.
The arm socks are just one type of innovative accessory Camilleri has made for wheelchair users. Those who wheel themselves in rainy or snowy conditions know how dirty sleeves can get. Camilleri realized that people needed protection for clothing sleeves, but in a form that would not obstruct a chair’s mechanical controls or get caught in the wheels. Camilleri drew inspiration from observing factory workers who dealt with machinery and began designing fashionable protectors that can keep sleeves from wrist to elbow clean and free from rips and tears.
The Izzy Camilleri Adaptive Clothing website features several videos that demonstrate the ease-of-use features Camilleri has built into her fashions. The videos can help wheelchair users visualize how Camilleri’s clothing could fit their specific needs.
Conquering a new fashion frontier
Recognizing how few fashion choices exist that are tailored to the needs of wheelchair users, Camilleri notes, “The formula for taking my patterns and adapting them to a seated frame was something I had to develop from scratch.” The client who started it all, Barbara Turnbull, states that ever since the adaptive clothing collection came online in 2009, “Izzy has been inundated with an unexpected flood of inquiries, orders, and appeals from the disabled community, and others, to extend her collection to include designs for men and children and increase retail availability. Every week brings thousands of hits on her website from around the world.” The website now also features coats, pants, tops, and even robes for men in wheelchairs.
Carolyn Pioro, one of IZ Adaptive’s customers, says in a web testimonial, “I embrace the freedom to define myself through my actions and my appearance. Thanks to the innovative IZ clothing line, there now exist [fashion] options that were never available to me before.”
Camilleri counts herself fortunate to have been featured in a number of publications, magazines and newspapers, but mentions that she would appreciate even more opportunities to share her line of clothing with the vast wheelchair-user community. On occasion, groups that specialize in adaptive equipment for people with disabilities include a link to her website on theirs. Several clients also find out about her clothing line through coverage in publications such as the Toronto Star or through Camilleri’s supporters at the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
Sophie Morgan, a British artist, disability rights activist, and wheelchair user, is a spokesperson for IZ Adaptive Clothing. Creator of the IMperfect campaign, Morgan also models and has contributed one of her art pieces for the first T-shirt available at the IZ Adaptive online store. Proceeds from every t-shirt sale go to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
Camilleri applies to her adaptive collection the same couture-like workmanship that has secured her a position as one of Canada’s preeminent designers. “Fashion and feedback determine what I produce in all of my lines each season,” she relates. “For IZ adaptive, I like to put together a fashion trend report and see how it applies so that my customers can make choices along with the fashion world. Simple fabric and or color changes can keep [wheelchair users] up-to-date” with anyone else who enjoys the latest fashions. However, Camilleri also features many classic designs that promise to stay in style for a long time. Her innovations in mainstream designs earned her the title of Designer of the Year in 2006.
Camilleri’s dream is to provide even more products, both online and through more retail outlets. “I’d love to have a store in New York, someday,” she says. Camilleri would also like to broaden her line. “Perhaps I could even match up with a shoe manufacturer in the future and offer shoes to people with disabilities,” she muses. Still, with the pieces Camilleri designs already, wheelchair users can look and feel like movie stars from head to toe.
To learn more about Izzy Camilleri’s other work view her website at:www.izzycamilleri.com.
My name is Patti VanLandschoot and I have multiple sclerosis. I was extremely excited when I discovered Izzy and her adaptable clothing line. I immediately contacted her to see what she could do for me; I discovered the possibilities were endless and I couldn’t believe it that somebody had finally thought about all the trials and tribulations that a disabled person goes through trying to find proper fitted clothing.
Izzy has made me pants and a shirt but my favorite item she has made me so far is my winter coat. I now do not mind going out in my wheelchair in the winter. She has thought of all the little things required to make it extremely easy to get dressed, plus the clothing line is very stylish. Anyone who needs assistance with dressing, etc. needs to contact Izzy to make their life easier; I know she’s helped me!
— Patti VanLandschoot
I worked in the business world prior to my injury, [and] I dressed fashionably. I struggled to find suitable clothing for outings after my injury until I read an article in the Toronto Sun introducing Izzy Camilleri as a clothing designer for disabled people! I contacted Izzy and she has made me accessible pants, shirts, and jackets to suit my disability!
Edited by Mary-Louise Piner.