There is so much that all of us take for granted. Oftentimes, it isn’t until we have a chance encounter with someone struggling that we realize how good we have it. Take fashion for example. Most of us have access to clothing that we love to wear and that serves a purpose. But there is a large part of the population, (65 million people worldwide), who struggle every day to find clothing that is stylish and functional.
Having access to fashion that feels and looks great, that boosts our self-esteem, shouldn’t be exclusive to the rich and famous, nor just people who are mobile. Canadian fashion designer and founder/CEO of IZ Adaptive Izzy Camilleri’s fortuitous meeting with a quadriplegic journalist showed her that there was a need for fashionable and operational clothing for people living with disabilities. That experience changed her life forever and changed the lives of many.
History of Fashion for Disabilities
The history of fashion for individuals with disabilities has seen a dynamic evolution. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the emphasis was on utilitarian clothing to meet functional needs. During and after WWI and WWII, a need for adaptations were innovated for injured soldiers.
Fast forward to the mid-century, innovations like velcro and elastic were invented. Brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Nike began offering options in the 70s and 80s, coinciding with advocacy for disability rights. In the 21st century, magnetic closures and 3D printing entered the scene, and independent designers began launching some adaptive clothing brands. Not to mention, models with disabilities are being featured more prominently in fashion shows and becoming part of inclusive marketing campaigns.
Even with all the advancements in awareness, functionality representation, people with disabilities are still underserved and very limited in fashion options. If they want clothes that are sophisticated and timely, they have to modify clothes made for the mainstream or pay the higher prices to have an independent designer make something specific for them.
After years of working in the fashion industry, in 2004, Izzy got her first opportunity to design for a person living with disabilities. “I met a woman who was a wheelchair user and she was paralyzed. She was a journalist and worked for the newspaper here in Toronto. The fashion editor recommended me because of the type of work I was doing, and the editor thought that I could help her.”
Izzy adds, “That was my introduction to clothing for people that use a wheelchair, and it was very eye-opening. I had no idea that she had any different clothing needs than myself. And after working with her for a while, I just realized, ‘Oh my god, if she’s got all these problems with clothes, there’s got to be a lot of other people with the same issues.’ And that was how the seeds were planted.”
The seeds gave life to IZ Adaptive. “I literally started this category in the fashion world back in 2009 when we first launched, way, way, way before the curve and before social media is what it is today. There were so many challenges in keeping it alive, but I did, and it has survived, which does show a demand for the product.”
At the time, she had two lines, a high-end fashion line and the adaptive line. It was very difficult to keep both of them going because fashion wasn’t huge in Canada where she operates. And then things got worse. “Around 2009 there was another recession.” She had to do a lot of soul-searching. She had to make a choice.
Izzy decided that IZ Adaptive was the best way to give back and help that community. “People loved my high fashion work. People would tell me stories of having purchased my pieces and coveting them, holding on to them for years. However, environment wise, I didn’t want to create more and more collections and add to the issues the planet faces. So, I decided to serve this market that had been largely underserved.” For Izzy it is about, “Respecting my fellow human being by using my time and talent to help make someone else’s life easier.”
To this day, IZ Adaptive is passionate about creating clothing that is chic, comfortable and functional. The clothing is tailored to the unique needs of individuals with seated frames, featuring specific cut-lines, fabrics with stretch, open-back styles, and easy-access features. Their collection includes jeans, chinos, shirts, blouses, blazers, and dresses with help adaptations that make life a little easier.
While using extended waists, zippers and magnetic buttons to adapt their functionality, Izzy was inspired to do more. She has patented a product that will vastly improve the function and safety of the clothes she is designing. “My patent is ground-breaking, and I’m pretty proud of that since it has the potential to save someone’s life or prevent serious health issues.”
Even with IZ Adaptive and others, the market for adaptive clothing remains underserved. There is so much more that Izzy wants to do for the brand, for her customers and for the many people with disabilities that still have yet to discover that they have options with IZ Adaptive. “While many people within this demographic who can afford our current prices, there are many others that have limited or fixed incomes. We want to reach a wider audience and are working towards restructuring our manufacturing to reduce our pricing.”
The history of fashion design for individuals living with disabilities is a story of determination, driven by the demand for more inclusive and functional clothing. And it is a story in progress as Izzy Camilleri continues to innovate and scale in order to not only change the lives of people with disabilities but change her own life too. “My whole outlook on life completely changed when I turned my focus from runway fashion to dressing those who live with a disability.”