Anita Kaiser liked being in the fashion industry, but as a model with a disability, she was finding there wasn’t much work.
There also weren’t many clothes that took the needs of people using wheelchairs into account.
“For a long time, people with disabilities were trapped into buying clothes that didn’t really work for them,” says Kaiser.
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But some designers are starting to recognize this is an underserved market and the Toronto model welcomes the potential it holds for people with disabilities.
“Now they have this opportunity to buy clothes that make them feel great and look great and it really adds to feelings of self-confidence and self-worth.”
Much of the accessible clothing on the worldwide market today comes from Toronto-based IZ, a clothing brand for men and women who use wheelchairs.
Featuring signature cuts and styles specifically fitted to a seated body shape, the brand emphasizes style and trendiness, without ever having to compromise comfort.
Designer Izzy Camilleri, who has clothed celebrity A-listers like Angelina Jolie, David Bowie and Meryl Streep, launched the IZ collection in 2009.
Inspiration from a cape
Camilleri’s inspiration grew out of a request from a journalist who wanted a functional piece of clothing that would also be fashionable to be worn in her wheelchair. That cape inspired Camilleri to create the first IZ collection of adaptable clothing for wheelchair users.
“Currently what is available on the adapted clothing market is limited,” she says.
Today, one in seven Ontarians have a disability, according to the provincial government. By 2036 the number of people who live with a disability is expected to increase to one in five.
IZ now sells online to international customers, and it is that e-commerce model that Belle Owen, who handles marketing at IZ, says is vital to success in this niche market.
The IZ online store features clothing ranging from cotton T-shirts and jeans to trench coats, leather jackets and capes. Fabric selections, rivets and button placements, magnet closures and open-backed jackets are just some of the features that make the IZ collection more accessible for wheelchair users.
“People have preconceived ideas of what clothing is,” says Owen.
“It can be a challenge to educate people on how adapted fashion is different. But once people experience the added flexibility of the product, the response has been tremendous. People with disabilities have to make do when it comes to so much.”
Owen says she didn’t even realize a better alternative in fashion was available before discovering IZ.
Often the functional aspects of the clothing are invisible. A traditional trench coat, for example, would normally bulk up at the waist, whereas the IZ trench coat has been cut higher in the back to fit better while the person wearing it is sitting.
“It’s exciting to see designers like Izzy begin to recognize that there is a whole group of consumers who are excluded and alienated from the fashion industry,” says Ben Barry, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s fashion school in Toronto.
Barry sees a lack of awareness when it comes to reflecting diversity in a way that is truly fashionable and desirable.
“It’s major loss to creativity, which is what fashion is supposed to be about,” says Barry.
“Disability studies is not on the curriculum in fashion schools, and that’s a major loss to creativity in fashion education,” he says,
In his research, Barry says that when consumers are reflected in ads, there is an increase of more than 200 per cent in purchase intentions because people are able to picture themselves in the outfits.
Beyond niche markets
Barry believes that there is a very similar case to be made when someone with a disability sees a model with a disability in fashion ads. He sees those positive effects extending beyond niche markets.
“Authentic representations of disability would also appeal to consumers who don’t have disabilities. People gravitate towards brands that reflect values and ethics they like, such as those relating to inclusion and diversity.”
Recently, several high-profile brands have made steps towards representing disability.
Tommy Hilfiger launched a new accessible clothing line for children. Beyoncé cast Jillian Mercado, a model with muscular dystrophy, as a face for her new “Formation” merchandise. Gap featured Breaking Bad star R.J. Mitte, who has cerebral palsy, in its 2014 spring campaign.
Models with disabilities have been on the runway during the last four seasons at New York fashion week.
Although more diversity and inclusion are emerging in the fashion industry, the clothes coming down the runway have not been modified, something Owen would like to see change.
“Wearing fashion that fits right and feels great is a form of freedom that all people should be able to experience.”