“I realized that all my clients are seated…The clothes differ in dressing and ease of dressing.”
As this thought came to fashion designer Izzy Camilleri, like a light bulb going on, or perhaps a thunderbolt, a whole new world opened up, both for her as a designer and for her potential new clients—people in wheelchairs. For twenty years, until 2009, when Ms. Camilleri launched her first fashion line for wheelchair users, she had been well-known for her exciting collections in the mainstream fashion industry as well as film and television. But a commission from Barbara Turnbull, Toronto Star reporter and quadriplegic, changed Camilleri’s life. And, one can argue, the lives of a world full of wheelchair users.
When you peruse the offerings on the website of Camilleri’s company, IZ Adaptive, you don’t see the over-the-top drama of her designs inspired by Bladerunner, the spectacular fur worn by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, or even Camilleri’s signature body-fitting black leather and fur. But every item of clothing available through this online store is stylish, well-fitting, and often beautiful in an elegant, understated way. These clothes have had an effect in people’s lives that is dramatic in its own way, not to mention enduring and life-altering. As one of Camilleri’s clients, a quadriplegic from a mountain biking accident, told her, “Your clothes are really liberating.”
Stylish, yes. Fashionable, yes. But liberating? Don’t wheelchair users wear the same sorts of clothing everyone else does? The answer is yes – but no. As Camilleri discovered at the beginning of her journey, speaking to a small focus group of wheelchair users, the chair and the type of injury affect everything from the types of clothing users can even wear, to the sizing and even to where seams or pockets should go. If a person sits unmoving for hours at a time, for example, pressure sores become a problem. Add a pocket seam that exerts extra pressure, and the problem becomes quite serious.
That’s just the start. Think of the last time you wrestled backwards to get your second arm into a shirt or jacket after the first arm went in just fine. While this move might be possible (with some difficulty) for a paraplegic, who is only paralyzed from the waist down, it is likely impossible for a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, even with a trained helper. A wheelchair user may thus find him or herself wearing clothes two or three sizes too big, just to be able to get into them. And then, confined to the chair’s small space, that extra material bunches up and might make the person appear, in Camilleri’s words, “a sloppy mess.”
Who wants to go to a job interview that way? Or even just roll down a sidewalk?
At first, that small focus group (two quadriplegic women, one paraplegic woman, and one woman with MS) described so many different clothing issues that Camilleri was almost overwhelmed with the detail. But as she continued researching and peeling away these layers of confusion, it was that thought – “all my clients are seated” – that provided the final key. Recognize that the clients are seated, then recognize the differences in their abilities as they sit in their chairs, and ask, “What does that mean to the patterns?”
The first thing it means is that the distribution of material in the garments must shift. For a seated person to look the same in a pair of dress pants as a standing person does, with the same clean lines, the “pitch” of the pants must be different. There is less material at the front to bunch up, but there is more at the back to accommodate the curve of the hips and upper thighs. A shirt for a paraplegic may need slightly wider sleeves and shoulders than one for a quadriplegic, to accomplish the same look. Why? Because the back, shoulders, and arms of someone who constantly moves the wheels of a chair can be “pretty buff,” as Camilleri says, while someone in a power chair will not build those muscles the same way.
Power chairs require other clothing changes. Getting a jacket, blazer, or coat on and off can be difficult with all the material that normally goes behind the back and legs. Quadriplegics often wear jackets instead of coats, because it’s impossible to get extra material from coats properly tucked under, meaning that they are often underdressed for bad weather. That’s unhealthy and can leave them cold for hours. The solution? An ingenious design in which outerwear or blazers have most of the back cut out, with front and back fastenings that allow the garments simply to slide off the arms (or be put on by the arms) in two pieces. This design adds another element of convenience: even someone untrained can help the person remove their coat or blazer, without the shifting of the person’s body that would need to be done by a trained helper with a regular coat.
Camilleri has had to be a trailblazer; while mainstream fashion design always follows a certain trajectory, she has had to create the path for wheelchair fashion virtually from scratch, from researching the scattered demographic to designing the clothing to learning how to inform wheelchair users about this new opportunity. It’s hard to succeed with wheelchair fashion, as many failed competitors can attest. IZ Adaptive almost has the market to itself; only Rolli-Moden in Germany is similarly successful, and its offerings are somewhat different. Yet it has taken from 2009 until late 2014 for Camilleri to finally think about doing this work full-time without needing to supplement it with other design work.
The IZ Adaptive website and Facebook page are full of testimonials from people in wheelchairs, who are for the first time wearing clothing that both fits and looks good. Providing great clothes for them was an idea that was long overdue. Wheelchair users the world over are now reaping the benefit of the hard work, dedication, and expertise in style that Izzy Camilleri is putting into what is a revolutionary and welcome design idea.
[This article originally appeared in the now-defunct online Zen Dixie magazine, December 2014]
[Photos taken at the late 2014 Royal Ontario Museum exhibit of Izzy Camilleri’s designs, entitled, “Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting.”]