By: Tanya Debi

In 1982, Barbara Turnbull was 18-years-old working in a convenience store. One night, a man, with a gun walked into the store, planning on robbing it. He shot her in the back of the neck. Turnbull is now a quadriplegic, in a wheelchair, but she has never let that stop her. She put herself through school, studied journalism and eventually became a journalist with the Toronto Star. As determined as Turnbull was, it was the everyday tasks that were hardest for her. She had trouble finding clothes that were easy for her to take on and off. “It was almost impossible,” Turnbull said, It was only possible to get clothes if they were custom-made.”

IZ Adaptive floral skinny pant. Courtesy of Izzy Camilleri

IZ Adaptive floral skinny pant. Courtesy of Izzy Camilleri

A friend recommended Canadian designer, Izzy Camilleri to help design clothes for her. “I was looking for the warmest material, so someone told me that I should get a cape made from shearling and Izzy was known for working with fur and leather, so she would be a good person to go to.” Camilleri and Turnbull met to discuss some clothing ideas that would work. “I had never met anyone who was quadriplegic,” Camilleri says. She was really great and she explained what she needed the cape to be and do and that she still wanted it to be attractive.”

During the creation of the cape, Camilleri discovered a problem that she was not aware of and she was intrigued by it. “The more I delved into this I thought well there has got to be more people like her that have clothing problems and I didn’t even know that there was a clothing problem until I started working with [Turnbull],” Camilleri said. From the experience, Camilleri decided to do a collection and IZ Adaptive was born. It became something that Camilleri could really use to transform the fashion industry.

Izzy Camilleri and Barbara Turnbull. Courtesy of the ROM.

Izzy Camilleri and Barbara Turnbull. Courtesy of the ROM.

IZ Adaptive makes trendy clothes for both men and women who are wheelchair users. Although clothing sizing doesn’t change, Camilleri has to take other measurements into account. “The only difficulty with size and measurements is the hip measurements because when we are sitting, our bones spread out, so you get bigger measurements,” Camilleri says. “Therefore, you have to get the measuring tape underneath your butt cheek and measure on a 45-degree angle.”

Camilleri started designing the basics that everyone needs in their closet, however, the outerwear collection is very important. “It is impossible to get a coat for this community. You can’t just stand up to put that coat underneath you, so sometimes they don’t even buy a coat,” Camilleri said, “So they buy short jackets, but then their laps get rained on and snowed on and you also want to keep that warm.” Camilleri’s most popular cape design is the Sophia Cape, which comes out and covers the lap area, to keep the bottom area warm and dry.

Sophia Cape in Mocha. Courtesy of Izzy Camilleri

Sophia Cape in Mocha. Courtesy of Izzy Camilleri

Belle Owen works at the IZ Adaptive studio in Toronto with Camilleri and she is a wheelchair user. One of her favorite items is the Sophia Cape. “I like it because it’s got a really nice neck line and it’s really soft,” she said. Owen has only been working at IZ adaptive for a couple of months, but she is proud to be part of a vision that she really believes in. “I think the comfort, the cut of the clothes, it’s ingenious. Izzy is great at what she does and she does great pattern making,” Owen said.

Izzy Camilleri and Belle Owen

Izzy Camilleri and Belle Owen

Camilleri’s designs are now in an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum called, Fashion follows Form: Designs for Sitting, curated by Alexandra Palmer. “[Alexandra] had heard what we were doing but didn’t quite understand it,” Camilleri said, “So I explained what I did and how the clothes are cut differently for a seated frame…she immediately saw a relation between what I was doing and how pants were cut in the 1800s, specifically when riding a horse.” Palmer was excited with the notion that Camilleri was doing something that had been done before, but in a different context.

After four years of discussion and planning, the exhibit became a reality. Canadian TV personality Jeanne Beker along with Turnbull, were made honorary exhibition chairs. Turnbull is also in the exhibit. “It is really exciting, that Alexandria had that kind of vision, because it is a wonderful opportunity to open people’s eyes,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull is still a fan of the clothing line she inspired and she has two favorite pieces. “Izzy made for me a beaver-lined coat…but it’s also removable where it comes out of the shell of the coat and becomes a beautiful vest,” Turnbull said. “My second favorite piece would be the shearling cape she made for me 10 years ago. I still get compliments on it. It’s timeless.”


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