Izzy in her super cool Toronto studio.
©Tara West for FAJO Magazine
Izzy Camilleri is considered one of Canada’s most innovative fashion designers (and one of several woman crushes I’ve developed over the years), who’s known for her provocative and sophisticated yet wearable designs. She’s been in the business for over 30 years, having worked with the likes of David Bowie and Meryl Streep, and she’s had her designs featured in major fashion publications such as Vogue, InStyle, and Harper’s Bazaar.
Izzy’s brand, IZ Adaptive, focuses on inclusive fashion for people living with physical disabilities. Originally a trendy clothing line only for wheelchair users, IZ Adaptive has since expanded to creating clothes for anyone with physical limitations – whether seated or standing. They’re on a mission to make great-looking and well-fitting clothes accessible to everyone. Hence, my crush.
I was really lucky to have the chance to chat with Izzy about IZ Adaptive while she was working on some new pieces from her bright and creative studio in Toronto.
Corinne: Can you share your story and tell us what led you to create IZ Adaptive?
Izzy: I started my fashion career in 1984 right after I finished studying fashion in college. I was 19 years old. In 2004, I did some custom work for a wheelchair user and it was an eye-opening, thought-provoking and inspiring experience. I came to realize and understand the challenges wheelchair users had with clothing. It was through this one client that the idea of creating a line of clothing especially for wheelchair users came to mind. I started IZ Adaptive in 2009.
Corinne: How would you describe adaptive clothing to someone completely new to this industry? Can you explain why it’s so important?
Izzy: Adaptive clothing can be described in a few ways. It is clothing designed for people with physical limitations, for people that need assistance while dressing. It is also clothing cut for being seated in a wheelchair. Basically, it’s clothing with a secondary purpose, having both fashion and function in its design. Adaptive clothing is important because without it, the people who need it would be quite limited in what they can wear. This can affect their self-esteem, their sense of self, their dignity, and their feeling of inclusion.
Corinne: At UR, we advocate for inclusive design, but it’s so important for people to understand practically what this looks like. Can you walk us through your design process and what it takes to understand the needs of someone living with a physical disability?
Izzy: Initially, I did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people to understand the issues and their needs. I then incorporated the findings into my designs. There are people with disabilities who live quite independently and don’t need any assistance in dressing, then there are others who need assistance. My designs keep these issues in mind, making the act of dressing easier, whether it’s independently done or with assistance. We test the garments on people who would be potential buyers to ensure they are doing what they were designed to do. Style and fashion are just as important to the functionality of the clothing. From a fashion perspective, this allows a person to feel included.
An example of IZ Adaptive's Ease-of-Dress philosophy. This Long Sleeve tee features an open back snap, designed for the seated wheelchair user in mind.
Corinne: Can you share more about how IZ Adaptive incorporates disability rights throughout its entire supply chain?
Izzy: We are a very small company. There are only four of us who run IZ Adaptive and we work with external partners to contribute to different aspects of the business. However, two of our staff members live with a physical disability. We will continue to staff our company with people with physical disabilities where possible, based on the job requirements. Additionally, the models we hire are people with physical disabilities or limitations. I want our consumers to be able to relate to the models and see themselves in the clothes. I also want the models to be inspiring role models.
Corinne: It seems like over the years there have been sporadic sustainability movements within the fashion industry – from labor rights and environmentally-friendly fabrics to racial diversity and body positivity. Sometimes I can’t help but think that a lot of these campaigns are just clever marketing, because they seldom lead to systemic change in the industry. These days, more and more people are on the ‘disability bandwagon’. Is this just another trend or is this here to stay?
Izzy: I can’t predict the future, but I’d say it’s got a good chance to stay. However, its ability to sustain itself all boils down to money and the consumers. Bigger brands might be in it for the marketing or to be on the ‘disability bandwagon’, but others might sincerely be in it for the right reasons. It really comes down to the consumer—not the companies—to make it sustainable. If people don’t buy it, it won’t last.
“I was not ignoring the issue; I just didn’t know it existed.”
Corinne: It’s been reported that people with disabilities and their immediate communities account for about US$8 trillion in spending. It’s clear there is a market here and the demand is huge. Why do you think progress on this has been so slow?
Izzy: I think that because people with disabilities have various and unique body types and needs, the assumption is that it would be difficult to create ready-to-wear, cookie-cutter clothing as is done in mainstream fashion. This was an assumption that I made as well before I began designing for someone with a disability. I worked with her for four years before I was able to ‘crack the code’ and understand how I could make my designs work on a mass scale and not as custom-made clothing. However, like every business, I can’t be everything to everyone, so my designs may still not work for some and there may be further customization required for those with unique circumstances. With unique circumstances, doing this kind of customization is costly for both the manufacturer and the consumer, which becomes prohibitive.
Corinne: How can other business leaders incorporate inclusive design into their everyday business?
Izzy: First, it’s important to do the research and understand the needs. Then based on what the business is selling, business leaders should understand how they can make their products accessible to someone who may have not considered buying their products previously because it would not have worked for them. For example, lowering light switches so both a standing person and a wheelchair user could easily reach them is a simple way for architects to be inclusive in design.
Corinne: What are some of the more commonly-held beliefs or excuses among business leaders for not designing products for people with physical disabilities?
Many articles I’ve read on this topic often say that fashion designers are ignoring people with disabilities, and I strongly disagree. I say this because before I started working with my first client, I had no idea whatsoever that someone with a physical disability had different clothing needs than I did. Every time I saw someone with a physical disability, they were dressed. What I didn’t know was how difficult it was for them to get dressed. I was not ignoring the issue; I just didn’t know it existed. I did not live with or have a family member or friend living with a disability, so there was no way for me to know. This would be the case for many people, including designers. Just because we are not aware of an issue, it doesn’t mean we are ignoring it. So, I do defend my fellow designers and I don’t speak badly or punish them for something they are not aware of. It’s not about making excuses, it’s about whether this topic has crossed a designer’s path before this surge of interest and attention on the subject. Also, it’s really up to each company or designer to decide what they want to produce or design and to understand how those decisions impact them. I think it’s a great idea to think inclusively, and others are understanding that now.
Since 2009, IZ Adaptive has not only made the world more accessible through clothing but has also raised awareness about disability issues while raising the profile of disabled models. We love Izzy and all that she’s doing to make fashion feel more inclusive and less awkward for people with physical disabilities. If you know someone living with a physical disability, shop for their next birthday present at IZ Adaptive. Here’s a peek at some of IZ Adaptive’s Collection. All images ©David Kerr