Meet the pioneering designer behind Gord Downie’s amazing metallic suits

Izzy Camilleri collaborated with the Tragically Hip frontman for his dazzling tour wardrobe. But her bigger business is a wheelchair-friendly fashion line

Gord Downie performing on stage with The Tragically Hip, wearing a metallic blue suit

Gord Downie has been sporting designer Izzy Camilleri’s dazzling metallic suits for The Tragically Hip’s final tour. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

The Tragically Hip wraps up their final tour this weekend, and once the lights are out and the set list starts fading from memory, one thing we’ll remember is Gord Downie’s wardrobe. Pink, turquoise, silver, and gold—all bright metallic and leather—the colourful array of suits have become instantly iconic. Izzy Camilleri is the designer behind the dazzling look— a look she admittedly wasn’t sure Downie could pull off at first. When she’s not designing suits for The Hip frontman, Camilleri is working on her clothing line for wheelchair users called IZ Adaptive. We caught up with her to chat about blazing new trails in the fashion industry, working with Gord Downie, and the surprising power clothing has to lift our spirits:

How did you come to design Gord Downie’s wardrobe for the Man Machine Poem tour?

I met him in 2014 and he was looking to get some leather done for his Fully Completely tour last year. We met one Saturday morning at a coffee shop and just kind of clicked. I ended up making four pieces for that tour: one for every season. We initially did the black leather one, and a pinstriped one. In the summer we did a white version and a chocolate brown version in the fall. By the end of that tour they were already planning the next one (Man Machine Poem), and he and I started talking about doing these metallic suits. That was before he found out about his tumour.

Whose idea was it make the suits in bright, colourful metallics?

That was his idea.

It’s a bold look for him—did you think he could carry it?

It’s a bold look for anybody! At first I was not fully on the same page, let’s say. But I was open to it. I like when people trust what they’re feeling and go with it. I just had to think about how we could make it work. We tabled the idea, then he got diagnosed and didn’t talk about it for a while. When he came back with the OK from his doctor to go ahead with the tour, the suits seemed fitting all of the sudden. I would never have pegged him for wearing them, but now I think they’re so perfect.

The outfits are already iconic. I saw a woman leaving one of the band’s Toronto shows dressed like Gord in a the turquoise pants, a Jaws t-shirt, and white hat. Did you expect they’d resonate with fans like they have?

I knew it was going to be awesome, but I had no idea just how powerful they’d be. He really wanted to be uplifting on stage and he wanted to raise everyone’s spirits. In that respect, these suits have been impactful on many levels. That’s what I didn’t expect. The Jaws t-shirt was all him, by the way. It’s just part of his everyday wardrobe he tossed in his suitcase. When I saw it for the first time on stage, I was like: That is so good. It works so well with the metallic.

Designing clothes for stars is more of a side job for you now. Can you tell me how you got started with your current fashion line, IZ Adaptive?

In 2004, the late Barbara Turnbull, who was a reporter for the Toronto Star, was looking for someone to make a shearling cape for her. Someone gave her my name because of my experience working with leather. She was awesome and told me what she needed this cape to be from a fashion perspective and also a function perspective, and I just became a sponge trying to understand what her clothing needs were.  Until then I had never worked with someone who uses a wheelchair. I didn’t even realize that someone who uses a wheelchair would have different challenges when it came to clothes. That’s one of the reasons I dove into this: there was this bigger-picture part of being a human being that I wasn’t even considering.

Models wearing IZ Adaptive wheelchair clothing

Designs from Izzy Camilleri’s IZ Adaptive line of wheelchair-compatible fashions. (IZ Adaptive)

How did you scale up from that one client?

I thought, if Barbara has these issues with clothes, there’s gotta be lots of others with similar issues. I asked her to put a focus group together so I could ask other women what their challenges are around clothes. The women talked freely about dislikes, likes, challenges, wish lists, and there wasn’t one similar comment. By the end of the night, my head was spinning. I thought there’s no way I can do this. Then one of the women from the focus group—a woman in her 20s who loved fashion—asked me to make her a winter coat. After I made it she called me and told me every time she wears the coat, people would stop her and tell her how amazing it is, and she just called to thank me. That was the nicest, biggest compliment I’d ever received. After that, I got this epiphany: the common link between everybody is they’re sitting. I was super motivated and ended up putting a collection together and was up and running within six weeks.

What options did wheelchair users have for comfortable, fashionable clothing at the time?

Options were slim. After making one of my first pieces for a seated client, I started Googling around and everything I saw was geared to the elderly or people in long-term care. I’m talking polyester, elastic waistbands, baggy shirts with big ugly prints, fleece with kittens on them. They all looked like they’d been designed in 1972 and never updated. But 84% of people who are paralyzed (in Ontario) are between the ages of 18 and 34. These are young people. They don’t want to dress like their grandmother in a hospital.

Has the adaptive clothing market improved in the seven years since you launched your business?

Our biggest competition is still a company in Germany. Their stuff costs about double the price of ours and they don’t ship to North America. There are some companies that have come up in the United States. Tommy Hilfiger, for example, just came out with a adaptive children’s wear line just this year. So there is a bit more of a light shining on this area, but it has taken years and years and years to develop.