World renowned fashion designer Izzy
Camilleri talks about her groundbreaking fashions designed
specifically for wheelchair users
Gary Barg: How did you go
from designing for Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Mark Wahlberg,
David Bowie, and something I find fascinating, having one of the
designs in The Devil Wears Prada to designing fashions for
Izzy Camilleri: I met a
woman named Barbara Turnbull about 10 years ago who is
quadriplegic and she has been in a chair for about 30 years. She
asked me if I could make her a cape. At the time, I had never
worked with a wheelchair user, let alone someone with Barb’s
disability. It became a huge learning experience on so many
levels, and my eyes were just opened to the issues that she had
surrounding clothing. I became a sponge, understanding what
those clothing issues were. I also became just very
compassionate about how she gets through her days. I would have
these realizations of how she does things such as putting food
in her mouth, because she cannot move her hands, and all the
other things we take for granted on a daily basis. I became more
and more enthralled in the whole thing and it just became a
mission to really learn more.
It is also so very important to family caregivers. I know that
one of the challenges of being a wheelchair user is that you are
limited as to the clothes you are able to wear.
Izzy: I did my own search on the Internet
to see what is out there for this population. Everything I found
was all very dated looking or stuff that really does not make a
person feel good or allow a sense of self and identity.
Gary: There is no lack for style in your
line on Izadaptive.com. What did you learn about designing for
someone in a wheelchair?
Izzy: At first it was extremely
overwhelming to understand how to achieve a uniformity in this
collection that would work for people with all different kinds
of conditions or disabilities or spinal cord injury. I still did
not understand how I could really make this work for the bigger
part of the population. But, when I was able to really break it
all down and tear away the layers of my confusion, I realized
the main difference is between a standing frame and a seated
frame. Then I divide that into two kinds of clients—the manual
chair users and the power chair users. The manual chair users
are, for the most part, able to dress themselves. They have a
lot of upper body strength. They are fairly independent. The
power chair users, on the other hand, are usually dependent on
other people to help them get dressed. That epiphany enabled me
to move forward and start creating a line for this population.
did you learn that helps a caregiver as they help dress their
Izzy: The way that conventional clothes are
cut, they are cut for standing. So, when we sit down, our
clothes react in a funny way that we do not even think about
because we are going to be standing up again. So with someone
who is dressing somebody else, understand that conventional
pants, for example, will ride at the back when you sit down.
Caregivers are constantly yanking at the back, pulling the waist
band up, because the pants are always wanting to ride down. It
really does not matter how much yanking you do at the back to
raise up those pants; they are just going to find their way back
down. With our pants, we allow for the length that you need at
the back so they stay in place.
The other thing for caregivers is just ease
of dressing. We have pieces that separate into two halves, so
you can dress someone from right to left, one side at a time. It
makes dressing very easy. Often, there is a lot of yanking that
goes on while trying to get an arm through an armhole that is
very high and tight. So, for a caregiver, grabbing something
that is loose is easier, like a pair of track pants. People tend
to buy sizes that are bigger because they are easier to get on.
But that just leaves the person looking sloppy and not as
polished as everybody else out there. That affects you mentally,
Gary: I like the concept of arm socks. Boy,
does that make sense. Could you explain that?
Izzy: They are actually the same as leg
warmers. They are the same product that you can wear on your
legs or you can wear them on your arms. I think about my first
client, Barbara Trimble; she gets very cold.
Many people that are quadriplegic are just cold all the
time. It does not matter how hot it is outside; staying warm and
keeping warm is a problem. So, having little accessories like
that really helps with keeping warm.
Gary: One of the greatest aspects of what
you do is helping people maintain dignity. Do you hear that from
the people who buy your clothes?
Izzy: From my customer’s perspective, I get
a lot of gratitude and a lot of appreciation. I think they are
just happy and relieved that someone is even thinking about
their needs as a human being. I am happy just being able to
offer them what everybody else out there has, instead of having
to settle for what is going to work from a functionality
perspective. I think a lot of times, with the other clothing
lines that are out there, the function is what comes first and
fashion is either secondary or non-existent.
Gary: I think you are helping a lot of
Izzy: I honestly feel honored that I can
put my talents to some really important work. I feel like all
those celebrities I have worked with have so much. To be able to
do what I do, I feel like my clients are VIPs. What they deal
with on a daily basis, just to get through their day, is
humbling. Meryl Streep is going to be fine without me dressing
her, and all those other people are going to be just fine. So,
to be able to put my energy where it is now, is…I cannot…there
are no words.
Gary: What is the one most important
takeaway about your work that you would like to share with
Izzy: I think that with our line of clothes, we have
really thought through the issues of being a wheelchair user, as
well as keeping in mind all the challenges that someone has with
dealing with their disability—which could even be things like
lack of dexterity in their hands. We just want to be able to
offer something that is not out there, and give people something
to be able to feel good in—not having to be forced into wearing
something because that is the only option. So, now we are giving
them a lot of options and the same kind of options that
everybody else has. We are able to build a person’s wardrobe
from top to bottom.