Fashion for Real Life: Clothes for People with Disabilities
Living well with a disability has a lot to do with finding new ways to do things. Likewise, accessibility is about throwing out the norm and finding another way to your goal.
“Izzy Camilleri has seamlessly united fashion, form, and comfort by defying centuries of design and pattern-making conventions. Most fashions are designed for a standing or walking ‘I’ body, and become distorted when sitting. IZ Adaptive are radical because they are cut to the form of a sitting ‘L’ body, making them classics when seated and avant-garde and unconventional when standing. IZ Adaptive is a fashion revolution and revelation.”
This is some of the introductory text for the exhibit Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting currently at the Royal Ontario Museum (aka the ROM). This exhibit explores the fashion of IZ Adaptive, fashion designer Izzy Camilleri’s line for people who use wheelchairs.
Yes. Accessible clothing. More than that, it’s accessible clothing that looks damn good.
Last week, I attended Fashion for Real Life, a panel discussion about the IZ Adaptive fashion line at the ROM to hear more about how it started and the difference it’s made in the lives of people with disabilities.
Before we got started, Alexandra Palmer, the curator of the exhibit, talked a little about how she discovered IZ Adaptive and how the exhibit came about
The panel discussion itself was moderated by Jeanne Beker, iconic fashion reporter and influencer.
I have to mention that Dini Petty, equally iconic reporter, was at the event, too. They have both been a huge part of my life and television habits over the years. I was completely starstruck. I recently saw in an article that Dini Petty has moved to my neighbourhood and very badly wanted to say hi and welcome to my neck of the woods. I moved towards her and backed off several times, overwhelmed by shyness. It was completely ridiculous, but The Boy and his sister thought it was hilarious. When I finally got up the nerve, she was gone.
On the panel was Izzy Camilleri, Barbara Turnbull, journalist and the person who sparked the idea, and Luke Andersen, engineer, creator of Stopgap (a brilliant way to reduce barriers and raise) awareness and IZ Adaptive customer.
Barbara Turnbull is a bit of a legend in Canada (before and after the panel, she was surrounded by people. Didn’t get to say hi to her either). Barbara deserves her status. She’s created a life and a career as a journalist (among many other things) after becoming a quadriplegic as a result of a shooting when she was 18 (you can see her story here). About 10 years ago, she was looking for a cape that could keep her warm while also being fashionable. Shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Actually, finding good outerwear is near impossible when you use a wheelchair. So she called Izzy Camilleri and asked if she’d make one. And that was the beginning of IZ Adaptive.
At the panel, Barbara told a story of how Izzy then had an idea about a line of clothing for people who use wheelchairs. Barbara also mentioned how she thought this was absolutely crazy and “would never happen.” It took a while, but IZ Adaptive was launched in 2009. I remember when this happened — I have friends who live in the area of the store. I also remember seeing the mannequin used in the store. Or rather, the mannequal. Extraordinary.
I was really excited. The idea that someone would design clothes specific to the needs of people who travel seated all day, every day, was revolutionary. Why?
Well, clothes for people who sit need to be different. Pants are normally made for standing. Think about when you sit down wearing a pair of pants. All of a sudden the material bunches at the front (so not attractive) and the waistline goes down at the back (very undignified). Capes need to be long enough to cover your lap, because what with being horizontal, it otherwise gets soaked in rain or snow. Izzy also designs coats, long in the front and cut in the back so those who are seated can wear a classic trench coat or, new this year, parkas. Imagine parkas for wheelchair users!
Then there are jackets. When you’re sitting, they need to be shorter. As well, when you need help putting on a jacket, it can be very difficult. Some of Izzy’s are perfectly designed for this, being open at the back with a strap across to keep the jacket looking perfect. More than that, this also makes it easy to ask someone to help you take off or put on the jacket. Luke summed it up neatly, saying “before, I always kept my jacket on. Now I can ask someone to help me take it off.”
I relate to that. I’m usually cold when I go out because I can’t put on a jacket or coat myself and I’m not about to ask a stranger to help me. When you have a disability, there is often a special way to help you put on your clothes. Unless someone’s been trained in how to do it, they don’t do it well or accidentally hurt you. So you end up dressing for somewhere in between, leaving you too cold when you’re outside and too warm when you’re inside (or the reverse in summer).
Another issue is wrinkles. When designing for people in wheelchairs, it was important to know where there can’t be wrinkles and why. Why? For people who are paralyzed, a wrinkle in the wrong place can lead to a pressure sore in one day, a sore that can take months or years to heal.
Getting back to the pants, because they illustrate brilliantly the revolution that is IZ Adaptive. Izzy told us that the current style of pants has actually only been in existence for a couple of hundred years. Prior to that, there was a lot of extra material in the butt, which was normally covered by a coat. A similar approach was used in the bustle dresses, fashionable in Edwardian times.
Izzy threw out conventions about cut and construction and adopted a style with less fabric at the front and a butt that is structured with more material. It’s uniquely designed for the L-shaped body.
Luke explained how the fact that these pants don’t ride down in the back has made a tremendous difference in his life. “When transferring out of the chair on e.g., a plane, you’re not exposing yourself to a stranger.” This design is not only functional, but gives you back your dignity.
The exhibit included plaques with the photos and stories of real people who use IZ Adaptive clothes. One of these included the quote “whether standing or sitting you want clothes that make you look good and feel great.” And that’s what it’s all about.
I’ve recently become one of those real people. IZ Adaptive has a great sale at the moment and I bought two blouses. This is the first time in over a decade that I’ve been able to wear a blouse and the first time ever that I've been able to button it all the way down. Sitting down makes the latter impossible. As well, the Humira-related weight gain of the last several years has made me a bit more generous around the middle, exacerbated by sitting down. Normally, I can’t wear a button-down anything because the bottom buttons can’t close. My new blouses are A-line and there is plenty of room for all of me (lots of room. Next time, I’m buying a smaller size). More than that, the sleeves are three-quarter, designed to make sure they don’t get into the wheels of manual chairs. For me, it means something else. My arms are shorter than normal, due to the steroids that saved my life when I was 12. Normally, all my sleeves are rolled up, but on these blouses, they look like they were custom-made for me. And the last really nifty feature is the magnetic closures. Because of the fusions and deformities in my fingers, my manual dexterity isn’t great. I can do buttons, but it’s difficult. The magnets make it easy.
You may have noticed that there is one person missing from the photos in this post, namely the designer herself. That’s because I was completely dorky and asked if she would pose for photo with me. So here we are, me, my new blouse, and the amazing woman who designed it.
IZ Adaptive has a store in the west end of Toronto, but their website is open 24 hours a day and ships internationally. The Fashion Follows Form exhibit is that the ROM until January 25, 2015. If you’re in Toronto, go see it. It will blow your mind.