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Izzy Camilleri’s lamb leather jacket ($435 through www.izzycamilleri.com) is lined in jersey and features a high back with separating zipper. (Koby Inc./KOBY INC)
Izzy Camilleri’s lamb leather jacket ($435 through www.izzycamilleri.com) is lined in jersey and features a high back with separating zipper. (Koby Inc./KOBY INC)

Adaptable fashion

Clothes for women with limited mobility get a high-style push Add to ...

The black bomber-style leather jacket looks no different than anything you would find at a popular fashion retailer. Neither do the belted trench coat, the white blouse with ruffled placket and the stretch denim pants.

But all of these pieces have been specifically designed for women with limited mobility by Izzy Camilleri, who put her namesake collection on hold last year and has since entered the world of adaptable fashion.

It's an underserved niche that is growing little by little thanks to Camilleri's new iz collection and a project spearheaded by Ryerson University's School of Fashion and a research scientist at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto.

Women with special wardrobe needs typically have a limited range of options: lounge wear in some cases, plus-size clothing for ease of movement in others. Most adaptable clothing has until now catered to seniors, earning an A-plus for easier closures and large neck openings but an F on fashion.

Camilleri, who launched a corresponding website in June, admits that she did a mountain of research before arriving at the finished collection. Consequently, the tailored blazer is constructed as two separate pieces that zip at the high back for easy dressing, pants feature invisible zippers for catheter tubing, shirts boast side zippers and the jean skirt accommodates someone who is always in a seated position. The trench coat is shorter in the rear and sides to prevent excess fabric bunching.

"I thought I would start with the basics because these [women]don't even have basics," says Camilleri, who created her first piece of adaptable clothing five years ago. (It was a cape for Toronto Star reporter Barbara Turnbull, who became a paraplegic after being shot during a robbery in 1983.)

Most impressive of all, Camilleri is able to customize pieces while keeping prices reasonable. T-shirts, for instance, are $24; the most expensive item, the chic leather jacket lined in jersey, tops out at $435.

"I know I'm kind of pioneering this," says Camilleri. "But [the pieces]are not answering all the issues. I still think I have a lot to learn and I definitely think I can do more."

Enter Joyce Nyhof-Young, an associate professor of research oncology at PMH who approached Ryerson's Sandra Tullio-Pow and Sue Barnwell in 2005 about helping women with lymphedema, a swelling that can arise after breast cancer in areas where the lymphatic system has been damaged or blocked.

She explained the manifold challenges of the condition to the two women - one arm can be larger than another, certain areas become sensitive to the touch, excessive sweating can result from medication - and asked them if they would be interested in speaking with patients.

After numerous focus groups, field tests and conversations with occupational therapists, radiation therapists and nurses, a modular over-the-shoulder bag with three components and a built-in arm sling was born. Four hundred have been produced so far and they are available at the hospital's wig salon for $75.

But the project didn't end there. Together with research assistants, the professors also created a clothing line that includes soy knit tops with Dolman sleeves that conceal the shape of the arms, an oxford blouse with low-cut armholes and magnetic closures, a coat featuring shoulder epaulettes to secure the bag and a basic wide-legged pant with an elasticized waist.

"It's this constant shopping exercise of what's going to be big enough in the bicep area of the sleeve to get their arm into," says Tullio-Pow. "A lot of them were frustrated, especially if they needed evening wear or something for a special occasion."

Currently, the team is looking for a company that will manufacture the clothing; the patterns are available for $15 by contacting Tullio-Pow directly.

"We've often had women in tears because they finally see people offering solutions to the problems they've been facing," says Nyhoff-Young, who adds that the next step will be to create pants that accommodate legs of different sizes.

The experience has also been eye-opening for the Ryerson faculty, which decided to offer an elective course in functional apparel design for the first time this past winter. "This is an area we hope to really pursue," Tullio-Pow says, adding that they are now working on post-mastectomy sleepwear.

With more women surviving breast cancer and people generally living longer, the adaptable-fashion market shows long-term potential. But it may take an episode of Project Runway or some type of mainstream design competition to acquire the "sexy image" and necessary publicity, says Tullio-Pow. "It's not about designing pretty clothing; it's about engineering clothing that works for whatever your body is and for whatever you're doing."

For more information, visit izzycamilleri.com or contact Sandra Tullio-Pow through sansu.ca.

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