Wheelin’ a New Wardrobe
Seated mannequins in the window of the IZ Adaptive boutique. Jackets zip apart in the front and back to make dressing easier.
Getting dressed to go out can be one of the most arduous tasks in your day. Whether it’s picking an outfit for work in the morning or getting ready for a night out, choosing clothes is one of the small but recurrent stresses. In extreme cases, anxious phone calls and texts are sent out for reinforcements. There are movie montages devoted to the annoyingness of dressing. There’s even an app for that. There’s just no way around it: if you want to leave your bedroom, you almost always have to put on some clothes.
For those who navigate their days from a wheelchair, getting dressed is just one of the first daily challenges faced by those forced to sit in a world built for walking. Unlike buildings and buses, which are increasingly required to be accessible, clothes—one of the only things we encounter every single day—have never been so accommodating. Until now.
When Toronto-based fashion designer Izzy Camilleri was first asked to design some custom pieces for journalist Barbara Turnbull, it got her thinking about the unique sartorial needs of people with physical disabilities, or the “seated clientele” as Camilleri likes to say. When another seated client recounted all the compliments a custom-made coat had netted, the designer was inspired.
The fitting room is “accessible and pretty, just like the clothes” says Camilleri.
Time was that physical disabilities precluded much of the variety fashion offers, and limited its function as well; it was much harder to signify personal style or show conventional regard for workplace decorum. If you wear a black and white striped polo at Foot Locker, someone will ask you to bring out a pair of Air Jordans. And if you wear a suit to work, people know you’re a boss. For wheelchair users, function would often trump fashion, as they opted for stretchy pants that were easy for caregivers to slip on and comfortable to sit in all day. But going to work in sweat pants is rarely an option and baggy sweaters aren’t very alluring date night attire.
Most early attempts at designing clothes for the seated focused on the elderly, and though some girls are into boys in polyester cardigans and nipple-high pants, that look doesn’t work for everyone.
So after a few focus groups and some more custom-made pieces, Camilleri had an epiphany and, within six weeks of dropping off a piece to a client, she pulled together the IZ Adaptive line for seated clientele.
Like any good design, the concept sounds obvious once it’s laid bare, but putting the line together was a technical challenge for the veteran designer.
To build the adaptive line, Camilleri literally had to rebuild the building blocks of fashion. Typically clothes are cut from patterns, and those patterns are built from fairly standard “blocks”: jean blocks, shirt blocks, skirt blocks. From the blocks, a designer can add pockets or change the neckline, making the changes that make up a design. But when it came to designing for a seated clientele, Camilleri’s existing blocks wouldn’t do.
Think of a typical pair of jeans. If you’re looking at them laid out flat on their side, the front and the back form a straight line across the top, so when you sit down in them, the front goes up and the back goes down. Your crack hangs out and the waistband cuts into your gut. It’s the worst. IZ Adaptive pants have a shorter front and an opened up back, accommodating the pitch of a seated body.
Though Camilleri is used to the thanks and praise from clients, she says the feedback she gets on IZ Adaptive is special. Clients express a sense of pride, self-esteem, and self-sufficiency that they couldn’t get from traditionally-cut clothes.
Having a studio on-site allows Camilleri and her team to make custom alterations, like added zippers to accommodate catheters.
“This line is so much more than a clothing line. It’s making people’s lives a lot easier,” Camilleri told us during a chat in her new boutique in The Junction.
Take the zipper-back jacket sported by one of the seated mannequins in the shop’s window. One of the models at the boutique’s launch, a former mountain biker who was paralyzed in an accident, called the jacket “liberating.” With it, he is freed him from relying on an attendant or caregiver, someone who’s used to the routine of lifting dead-weight arms, jerking limbs, and helping him shimmy into a traditionally-cut coat. Because once that attendant is gone, he’s stuck in that jacket. And being stuck in a jacket is never a good thing in a climate as varied as ours. The luxury of going out in the morning with a light spring jacket and stuffing that jacket into your bag for the walk home is just that—a luxury. With an extra zipper and a cut-out in the lower back almost anyone can help a paralyzed person shed a layer.
There are few joys greater than taking off a coat on a spring day after a long Canadian winter, and thanks to the designs of Izzy Camilleri, more people can have that experience.
IZ Adaptive will be exhibiting at the People In Motion trade show June 3 and 4 at Exhibiton Place, or you can visit the IZ Adaptive studio and boutique at 2955 Dundas Street West.
Photos by Sarah-Joyce Battersby