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How I Started Making Clothing for Wheelchairs Users

The Story of IZ Adaptive

When Barbara Turnbull walked into my life, I had no idea that everything was about to change, and that my eyes were going to be opened to a world that I didn't know existed: clothing for wheelchair users.

From 2004 until 2007, I was living the fashion designer's dream: I had my own collection that was finding its way on to runways in Toronto and New York, and the clothes were earning glowing reviews from customers. On top of that, my schedule was always packed with film work, making pieces for some people I really respect and admire as artists, like Meryl Streep, David Bowie, and Denzel Washington. You can see a list of many of those projects here.

Still shot from “The Devil Wears Prada.” Meryl Streep wears a burgundy fur coat
designed by Izzy Camilleri. A black belt cinches the coat at the waist and is layered over black shirt and black pants. Paired with designer purse and black boots.
Coat I designed for Meryl Streep's character Miranda Priestly in "The Devil Wears Prada".

I was making designer couture that was being sold in boutiques around the continent, and it was a lot of fun to make, but something was missing: purpose.

Barbara Turnbull - My First Custom Job for Wheelchair Users

Full shot, seated. Barbara Turnbull using a power chair. She wears a
brown tee, beige jeans and green loafers. A Golden Labrador lies in front of Barbara.

Cue my late friend and Toronto Star journalist, Barbara Turnbull, who came out of nowhere, and, as it would have it, she helped me discover that purpose.

At 18 years old, Barbara had been working part-time at her local convenience store, and on September 23rd, 1983, quite late into the evening, four young men came into the store and shot her immediately, leaving Barbara paralyzed from the neck down. She had been using a power chair for twenty years when we met.

Living as a quadriplegic woman meant that Barbara had clothing needs that, at the time, I was completely unaware of. It had never even occurred to me that a wheelchair user, or a person living with limited mobility, faced clothing challenges that an able bodied person did not.

Barbara was recommended to me by the fashion editor of the Toronto Star at the time. Barbara was looking for a warm winter cape ; she wanted something elegant that worked with her power chair. All of the clothing options available to her back then were tailored towards the elderly, and were not exactly fashionable or stylish.

3 women smile and pose together. They wear boucle capes with turtlenecks in 3 different colors: gray, black and navy. 1 woman using a wheelchair, 1 woman standing, 1 woman sits on a block.

For the next four years, I frequently worked with Barbara. We became great friends, and I turned into a sponge, absorbing everything I could about the challenges she, and others, experienced when getting dressed. Beyond Barbara, I came to understand that whether someone was living with spinal cord injury (both paraplegic and quadriplegic), cerebral palsy, ms, spina bifida, limited dexterity, arthritis, amputation, or countless other circumstances, getting dressed had some - often many - unique challenges. Furthermore, as I have already mentioned, there were basically zero options out there that were both functional and fashionable.

I knew I wanted to make a collection for wheelchair users, but, initially, I couldn't figure out what the key was. My mind started percolating, searching for the common thread, and then one day it hit me: all of the clothing out there was designed for the standing body; it didn't follow the line of a seated frame. It is so obvious, yet, at the time, I couldn't see it. This was a major break through for me, and I knew what I had to do. In 2009, the first iteration of the IZ Adaptive collection was launched.

Knowing that I could make clothing with purpose, that made a difference in people's lives, I went all in on IZ Adaptive, and focused on making fashionable clothing for wheelchair users. It has been educational from the start, and brought me so much joy creating clothes that help people live with style, comfort, freedom and dignity.

Related Reading: 5 DIY Tricks Wheelchair Users Can Use to Make Adaptive Pants

Group shot of people smiling and gesticulating with excitement. Several people are using wheelchairs and some are using transfemoral prostheses. Text on image reads, “IZ was born out of a desire to create clothing with a purchase.”
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