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Perfect Fit

People with physical disabilities want better fashion.

Layla Guse Salah always wanted a trench coat. The look was classic, and she imagined herself with the eye-catching cinched belt, knowing, with her petite figure, she could pull it off. But she also knew it wasn’t an option. Guse Salah has spastic cerebral palsy and quadriplegia. Her right arm is more spastic than her left, and it can be difficult to put on sleeves that are too tight. She’d come to accept that her jackets would always be a boxy shape.

That changed when she was twenty-three and completing teacher’s college. Guse Salah had heard about a Toronto-based designer named Izzy Camilleri, who’d released an adaptive fashion line—clothing designed for people with physical disabilities. With her mom, Guse Salah went to Camilleri’s store in the Junction. A colourful collection of dresses, jackets, blouses and other clothing hung delicately on the steel rack, all of them items she had imagined she’d never be able to wear.

She already knew what her first buy would be. A few weeks later, Guse Salah put on her new, creamy-pink trench coat. She looked at her reflection in the store mirror and began to cry. Camilleri had added in stretchy panels under the sleeves and tapered the coat off gracefully in the back, keeping it from lumping under her legs when sitting. On first glance, it looked like any regular trench coat. But this one was made perfectly for her.

Walking through the average mall,an odd reality dawns for those paying attention: you can usually find more clothing that fits pets than fits people with physical disabilities. Los Angeles-based stylist Stephanie Thomas pointed out this and other ironies in a 2016 TED Talk. “In the States we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it makes it mandatory for people who have wheelchairs to be able to actually have access to stores and have wheelchair accessible dressing rooms,” Thomas told the crowd. “But there’s no clothing on the floor for anyone with a seated body type.”

One in seven Canadians aged fifteen or older—around 3.8 million people—have a disability that limits their daily activities, according to Statistics Canada. The few items of clothing made for people with disabilities bear a certain resemblance: stretchy, buttonless pants, jackets and other garments that look a lot like pyjamas. They’re made by a handful of companies, including Silverts, Debra Lynn, JBS Clothing and AgeComfort, and the major target demographic is seniors.

Catering to seniors makes business sense, as more than a quarter of people over seventy-five have mobility-related disabilities. But not all Canadians with mobile disabilities are over seventy-five. Approximately 4 percent of Canadians aged fifteen to twenty-four have a mobility-related disability—a comparatively tiny group of 44,350 people.

But that’s still 44,350 Canadians who don’t have many clothing options. Before Guse Salah came across Camilleri’s line, she’d never bothered to invest in adaptive clothes because they didn’t suit her style. “I don’t want to wear muumuus,” she says with a laugh. “Adaptive clothing didn’t seem to be marketed to somebody who went out and had a very active life and wanted to look fashionable. I found that if I wanted to take pride in what I wore, I had to shop in regular stores.” But that’s an inadequate, even dangerous, fix, and one that’s only been necessary because this fledgling industry has been painfully slow to get off the ground.

In the summer of 2004, Camilleri, whose pieces have been featured in Italian Vogue and worn on-screen by David Bowie, Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep, was contacted by the late Toronto Star reporter Barbara Turnbull. At eighteen, while working at a Mississauga convenience store, Turnbull had been shot in the neck during a robbery and paralyzed from the neck down. Since then, she’d struggled to find fashionable clothes designed to be worn sitting in a wheelchair. Turnbull had heard about Camilleri’s expertise, particularly with leather, and asked her to custom design a simple shearling cape for winter. Camilleri delivered: the cape had a fur collar, she recalls, and was made with thick brown leather that draped across Turnbull’s arms and over her lap. The cape opened Camilleri’s eyes to the world of disability fashion; once she realized the extent of the demand, she couldn’t ignore it.

Turnbull helped organize a focus group of people with physical disabilities to talk about their experiences with clothing. This, along with research, helped Camilleri create a design plan for a new line of clothing. Just weeks later, in May 2009, the IZ Collection came to be. “I was so inspired and so motivated,” Camilleri says. “[The speed of the launch] is incomprehensible, when I think about it now.”

Camilleri explains that in fashion, every part of a wardrobe—pants, shirts, dresses, skirts, jackets and so on—is considered a block. Most of these blocks are sized from a standing perspective. Creating the IZ Collection meant recreating these common blocks from a sitting perspective.

Camilleri’s pants are all designed not to pull down in the back or push against the gut in the front, which is often what makes jeans and thick fabrics uncomfortable when sitting. Her jackets are also cut higher than most in the back, stopping at the end of the tailbone so customers aren’t forced to sit on a puddle of fabric all day. This streamlined fit is more than a style question: wrinkles irritate the skin, which, for those who can’t feel them, can cause sores and even lead to infections and cancer.

Camilleri’s clothes also have other special features. Her jackets tend to have extra fabric that drapes over the thighs for extra warmth during colder seasons; she designed a leather jacket that can be zipped into two pieces to make it easier to put on one sleeve at a time.

The response was mixed. While Camilleri’s customers were thrilled by their clothes, she began to be treated differently in the Toronto fashion community. She quickly became aware that her colleagues were gossiping about her. “I used to compare it to becoming a missionary and moving to Africa—that’s what they thought I did,” she says. “I came from doing really sexy high-end, high-fashion leather, and then I was doing this. No one was calling me anymore.”

But it took years for the bigger problem with her new line to become clear.

Today, it is becoming somewhat common to see people with disabilities in the fashion industry; models in wheelchairs appeared in Western Canada Fashion Week last spring, and at Toronto Fashion Week in September, twenty-four-year-old Rachel Romu walked down the runway with the cane that helps her cope with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

But the fashion world hasn’t yet found a way to effectively cater to individuals with disabilities as customers. Camilleri decided to shut down her IZ Collection in July 2017 because it was financially unsustainable. She had locally sourced and produced all of her clothing, and she also struggled with marketing—there is little that binds people with disabilities, after all, except for the fact that they have disabilities. Disability-focused websites and magazines didn’t prove to be the best way to find the stylish, young clients who’d be drawn to her clothing.

Moreover, few people can afford tailor-made clothes, and Camilleri’s would-be clients are no exception. In 2010, Statistics Canada found that people aged twenty-five to forty-four with disabilities earned a median annual salary of $21,480, compared with $36,560 for those without disabilities. The gap widened with the severity of the disability. Camilleri’s custom coats and blazers cost anywhere from $100 to $300—worth it, says Guse Salah, but perhaps out of reach for those whose median salaries came in under the poverty line.

When Camilleri faced the reality that she would need to close her line, she didn’t want to abandon her loyal clients with no source for adaptive clothing. She consulted with Silverts, which was founded in 1930 and pivoted to serving nursing homes in the 1970s, to help the company increase its appeal; Camilleri offered fresh eyes for the design of a new denim line, and offered feedback on their website’s landing page.

Camilleri believes she may manage to reopen her line one day, but only by building on the financial lessons she learned with the closure, especially the question of whether to source locally—next time, she says she’d outsource.

Well-established companies are also slowly learning these lessons. Silverts’ director of marketing and sales, Wendy Black, says that while the well-established company was growing by a rate of about 20 to 40 percent annually, it decided nonetheless that it was “time to expand [their] reach,” which was when they reached out to Camilleri for assistance. Ultimately, the key was simply realizing the demand was there.

By May 2014, Guse Salah was working at Camilleri’s store as an administrator, and she had a few weddings coming up. Camilleri gave her the chance to custom-order a dress, and the two women went fabric shopping together, stumbling upon a satin with light-blue beaded lace detailing that Guse Salah instantly knew was perfect.

The two-piece dress, strapless with boning through the ribs, had a matching sleeveless bolero jacket with a hidden zipper under the left arm, so that Guse Salah could thread one arm through a sleeve hole in order to zip the jacket together on the other side. When Guse Salah tried it on, she again began to cry. The final product was more extravagant than she had imagined.

The reception dinner was outside under a large white tent, a night marked in Guse Salah’s memory by dozens of compliments about the dress. “‘Oh my goodness, where did you find a dress like this?’” she recalls guests asking her. “And I got to tell them, ‘I didn’t find it, it was made for me.’”