Infusing functionality into fashion 

Designer Izzy Camilleri

Toronto-based fashion designer Izzy Camilleri's resumé sparkles with some of the shiniest names. David Bowie, Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep are a few A-listers she has dressed. The Tragically Hip's Gord Downie is another star with whom Izzy has worked – she created the dazzling metallic suits that Downie sported during the band's final tour.  

Now, Izzy is weaving her way toward the arthritis community. 

A coat designed by Izzy will be included in Arthritis Society Canada's third annual Fashion on Fire, a celebration of fashion and philanthropy to raise awareness around arthritis. The main attraction of the event is a stunning showcase of arthritis-friendly designs, many of which will be modeled by people living with the disease. The coat of Izzy's that will be worn on the runway features magnetic closures to make it easier to fasten for people with hand dexterity challenges. Last year, more than 350 guests attended the stylish soirée. This year's edition takes place on May 29 in Toronto. 

"Arthritis falls under the umbrella of what I do in terms of helping people. I want to expose the challenges that people face through events like Fashion on Fire," Izzy says.  

"We're thrilled Izzy is teaming up with us for Fashion on Fire. She truly is a leader in adaptive designs," says Jennifer Stewart, Chief Development Officer, Arthritis Society Canada. "Fashion on Fire is our way of challenging designers to create arthritis-friendly pieces, and we're confident Izzy's inclusion in the event will encourage the fashion community to do just that. We're deeply grateful for her partnership." 

Uncovering new design territory  

In 2009, Izzy launched IZ Adaptive, a clothing line designed specifically for wheelchair users. She was inspired after meeting a woman who was paralyzed from the neck down, and who asked Izzy to make her a cape to wear in her wheelchair. Izzy notes that people who use wheelchairs often buy clothes a few sizes too big because they're easier to get on. She says this can cause the person to feel as though they look disheveled, sloppy and unprofessional. 

Izzy agreed to create the piece, and a new world of design revealed itself. 

"I had never worked with someone with a disability or someone who used a wheelchair. It was so eye-opening, and I became such a sponge. There were so many things I didn't realize," says Izzy. "When you see someone in a wheelchair, you don't see what it took for that person to get dressed. You don't see how limited their clothing options are. I began to understand those limitations." 

Addressing those limitations is what Izzy set out to do. At the time, few designers, if any, centred people with disabilities in their work. Izzy was a pioneer, but her decision to design clothes for wheelchair users was met with dismay. Initially, the fashion industry iced her out, resisting a demographic not previously embraced, she says. 

"I didn't care that I stopped getting invited to things, but I cared about why. It's not so much that I wasn't invited to the party – it's that the people I serve were not invited, who I'm representing now was not included, because there's an assumption that people who use wheelchairs aren't sexy. They were not wanted," Izzy says. 

She was undeterred, however, and her career was reignited in 2014 with Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting, a six-month exhibit of her work – much of which included IZ Adaptive creations – at the Royal Ontario Museum. Izzy counts the award-winning show among her career highlights. 

Leaving her mark  

Before Izzy sketched her first IZ Adaptive design, she did her homework. She spoke with people who use wheelchairs to understand their clothing challenges, learning that small buttons and grips to pull up pants were problems. Her answer was magnetic clasps instead of buttons, and elastic loops on the sides and back of pants to make pulling them up easier.  

Her designs were, and remain, beloved among those who wear them. She shares that one woman who purchased an IZ Adaptive skirt wore it for a week straight – and that she told Izzy for the first time in 20 years, she felt human again.  

Izzy is inspired by making a positive difference through fashion and participating in events like Fashion on Fire. She notes how designing adaptive clothing has contributed to her growth as an artist.  

"Knowing there's a light at the end of the tunnel with regards to having clothing options that are not only functional, but fashionable, is important for people living with arthritis," says Izzy. "For me, it's about universal design, how to include everyone in my work without sacrificing fashion. It's been so healthy for me to think outside of the box and go places I haven't been before in my design process."