Adaptive Fashion is About Confidence, Dignity, Diversity

It’s not very often that a model receives cheers and applause for strutting down the catwalk. Yet that’s just what happened this year at Fashion Art Toronto 2016 as Tessa May Smith walked the runway for designer Lesley Hampton. Why such an enthusiastic response for Tessa? She represents a group that is often overlooked in the effort to bring more diversity to the fashion industry. Tessa has a mobility impairment.

“Much like in my runway show at Fashion Art Toronto, it still seems as a shock to the audience to see a person with mobility impairments walk the runway,” says Lesley Hampton.

When we think of diversity on the catwalk, we often think of race, size or gender expression. But there have been some recent victories in bringing visibility to this important group. The Gap recently cast actor RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy, in one of their campaigns. The last four New York Fashion Weeks have featured a model with a mobility impairment on the runway. And Beyoncé chose Jillian Mercado as the face for her new line “Formation.” Hampton is optimistic that people with mobility impairments are “slowly but surely being accepted into the fashion scene.”

  • Tessa May Smith walks the runway for Lesley Hampton at Fashion Art Toronto 2016.

But representation on the runways isn’t the whole story. For the millions of people who use wheelchairs, the cut and tailoring of clothing itself causes problems. A different shape and fit of clothing is required for seated bodies, and unfortunately, the models who are being featured in the mainstream industry are not wearing adaptive fashion tailored to their body types.

Izzy Camilleri is a couture designer who has worked with names such as Angelina Jolie, David Bowie, Jennifer Lopez, and Meryl Streep. In 2004 she was asked to do some custom work for a wheelchair user. “This opened by eyes to the need,” she says.

Based in Toronto, Camilleri’s studio IZ Adaptive makes clothing “designed specifically for a seated frame, accommodating wheelchair users.” We asked Izzy a few questions about her line and its impact on some of her customers.

Q. Why is fashion important? Why is it important to design clothes differently for people with mobility limitations?

A. Fashion is important as it allows for sense of self at a glance. The IZ Collection is important because it allows for inclusion. These clothes are designed to follow the line of a seated person, allowing for comfort, ease of dressing and a whole lot more.

Q. Models with disabilities have been featured in the last four New York Fashion Weeks, and in campaigns by Beyonce and the Gap. But is there real change in the fashion industry and is it happening fast enough?

A. Although models with disabilities have been featured in NY FASHION WEEK, the clothing they are modeling is not adapted clothing. They are being included, but not specifically catered to. No, I don’t believe there is real change. I think there is definitely more awareness of inclusion etc, but the fashion world is not catering to this market.

Q. Adaptive fashion fits within a broader context of equal representation in the fashion industry, including race, size and more. Is the fashion industry really becoming more diverse or is there more work to do?

A. There is a lot involved in doing a line such as the IZ Collection. Its a very challenging arena and market to reach. We are creating the mould and breaking new ground… so yes, there is a lot more work to do. I think the industry is trying to be more diverse, but its the ‘ground breakers’ that have it the hardest…. like us.

Q. Speaking to up and coming designers here: what technical advice would you offer for designing adaptive fashion? Where can they look for further information?

A. There is little information about adaptive fashion. I personally did all my own research, which is the advice I give anyone that wants to work in this field. You really need to understand the needs of this demographic, otherwise, you could potentially hurt someone with misplaced seams, skin integrity, organ settling and things I needed to learn and understand about how to create adaptive clothing.

Q. How has technology and digital interaction helped you reach your customers?

A. Being on line has allowed us to have a global audience. Social media has also been a great help to further that reach. This community also shares information when they find something worth sharing. Having this support on line has been crucial in our growth.

Q. A lot of the narrative surrounding adaptive fashion centres around people feeling confident in their bodies and embracing difference as beauty. What positive impacts have you noticed on the wellbeing of your customers when they have access to fashion that suits them? Can you share any inspiration/success stories?

A. We impact lives daily with our clothing and we get testimonials regularly. I’ve had one women tell me she felt human again after wearing one of our skirts… it was the first time in 20 years she was able to wear a skirt. Another person told us his wife felt alive again after receiving one of our leather biker jackets after coming home after a lengthy hospital stay after she had sustained a spinal cord injury. We’ve seen tears of happiness. We’ve seen people just feeling better about themselves knowing they can wear what everyone else is wearing. Its about inclusion, dignity, sense of self, confidence…. I could go on and on. These clothes also make peoples lives easier with regard to the functionality of the collection.

You can learn more about Izzy Camilleri’s work at her website:

Photo credits:
Cover image: IZ Adaptive clothing from
Jillian Mercado image from