To most people, Izzy Camilleri is a wonderful mystery. A veteran Canadian fashion designer, she tends to keep a low profile and quietly works in her elegant studio in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood. You won’t spot Camilleri at fashion events or fashion week—but almost anyone you know in Canada has seen her work. The latter includes “that iconic red coat” in The Devil Wears Prada, metallic outfits worn by Gord Downie on the final Tragically Hip Man Machine Poem tour, a variety of adaptive clothing designs, and even pieces donned by David Bowie in Dead Man Walking that were designed by stylist Carol Beadle and produced by Camilleri.
Not to mention that Camilleri never stops challenging herself to do new things: she has done womenswear, adaptive clothing, designer collaborations, outfits and costumes for music shows and films, and special custom work for beauty campaigns. This fall, she decided to head in a completely different direction and published a new book focused on nutritional advice and healthy living, called Izzy’s Eating Plan.
On a busy weekday afternoon, we caught up with Camilleri to have an in-depth and frank conversation about her career, new projects and sources of creative stimulus.
HANNAH YAKOBI: You’ve been working in the fashion industry for so long. Let’s take a quick trip back in time. How did it all start?
IZZY CAMILLERI: I started when I was 10—my Mom taught me how to sew. She was pulled out of school to help my Grandma, so she learnt how to be a seamstress and made clothes for her brothers and sisters.
This was a hobby that turned into a career for me. I did clothes for a high school play and for friends, and went to Sheridan College in Oakville, Canada, where I studied fashion. After I finished my degree, I started freelancing and happened to meet a lot of Toronto top models. They introduced me to people in the industry and it all took off from there.
Take me back to your first collection—do you remember your thought process at the time?
I think the first one in 1984 was a mish mash of a lot of things, it wasn’t very focused. It was just a lot of ideas that I was throwing out there. And then, I fine-tuned things as I went along.
Your fashion designs have often been very avant garde. They were never mainstream like other Canadian designers—you really pushed the creative envelope as far as possible. Some would argue that your work has strong European connotations too. How did your design aesthetic develop over time?
My early inspiration was probably Erté. After I did the high school play, my music teacher who directed it gave me Erté books as a way say thank you. At the time, I couldn’t even appreciate what it was and really absorb it all. A couple of years later, I was flipping through the pages and was blown away by his work. I think that was probably the beginning of it all. Then, in the early 80s, Claude Montana was also pretty inspiring to me.
When you are an independent designer, you are just not able to buy fabrics in large quantities, and so when you buy leather, you have more options. There were all these restrictions that kind of made working in that arena a little bit more feasible for me. It was an arena that I could compete in.
You mentioned leather and that you have always gravitated towards it. Over the years, you have also used a lot of fur. What is the reason behind that?
I started out in the 80s, and things were good during that time, especially the earlier 80s. Later on, we had the big stock market crash in 1987 that was just devastating for everybody. But before that, the economy was doing very well, so I did a lot of leathers with knit and leather applique, and my style just happened to really work well for this time.
Fast forward to today when fur and leather have become more controversial. What are your thoughts on how the industry has changed?
I feel that if people have a problem with fur, then they really should have a problem with leather too. It’s also a choice—it’s up to you whether you wear fur. There is also an education piece that I think is missing—a lot of fur is managed well, especially wild fur as opposed to farmed fur. The trappers are not allowed to take more than what the quota is. Every year is different and dependent on the previous winter. So, if it was a bad winter, and a lot of animals were naturally lost because of the weather, then their quotas get pulled back because they aren’t allowed to take more than the population can handle.
Speaking of fur, you designed that well-known fur coat that Meryl Streep wore in The Devil Wears Prada. Could you share the story behind that piece?
I used to have a rep in New York—it was at an agency that a lot of stylists would go to and pull from for their fashion editorials, television shows, movies and commercials. Patricia Field also used this showroom and that’s how my item got pulled. That coat got a lot of publicity because, coincidentally, the photo in the red coat was one of their PR shots.
I didn’t even know it was going to be in the film until I physically saw the film. All I knew is that it had been borrowed. So, one day, journalist Derrick Chetty called to ask me about it. It was just when the movie was going to be premiered, and he said, “Well, I’m going to see it, do you want to come with me? We can see it together and you can just tell me if the coat is in the film.” And so, we ended up seeing it together and then he wrote the article about it afterwards!
In terms of your other work, your adaptive clothing designs have always been very well-respected. From what I heard, the nearest adaptive designer who designed at the same time as you was in Germany, so it’s a very small sector. Yet, last year you closed that business. Can you tell me a bit more about this?
The product was fine and it worked for a lot of people with different disabilities, but the marketing was the hardest part. We had customers across North America and in Australia. Some people were just not interested in fashion and a lot of magazines that were focused on disabilities were very medical. Our ads didn’t work. It was hard to know where to put our focus. The best thing was social media—no matter what our customers were involved in, everyone had a Facebook page, and that was one place where everyone went regardless of their personal interests.
For that collection, I also had a backer and we took it very far and did a lot with it. However, the growth was very slow. My investor was a great guy and very supportive, he was willing to do anything, but we felt like we tried everything and a decision had to be made. When we announced the closure, our sales skyrocketed. Everyone was just stocking up.
I’m now consulting for another adaptive clothing company, so I’m still involved with that sector.
How was the design process different when you designed adaptive clothing?
It was really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really hard. (laughs) It really was. I specialized in a seated frame, and you are normally drawing for a standing frame: the clothes are hung up in a store, the models are walking down the runway and the clothes just fall naturally when you are standing.
When you are sitting full-time, it’s a completely different process. When we sit, all our clothes get bunched up. Our jeans cut us in our gut, they ride in the back. For someone who is sitting all day, when things bind you on your waist, it’s actually really bad for your organs. For some people, it can even affect their breathing.
Then, there are pressure sores, which can actually kill you. A lot of my clients were paralyzed from some kind of injury, and when you are paralyzed, you don’t feel when there is something wrong or hurting you. So, a pressure sore can happen internally and you won’t really see it until it gets to the skin.
I needed to take all these things into consideration. For example, all my seams had to be very flat. Choice of fabric was important. The cut of clothes needed to be completely re-thought. People would just look at the clothes and think that they looked like regular clothes, but they were completely redesigned. If you hung the clothes, they looked kind of wonky and had a very different shape, but when you put them on the body and you were sitting, they looked very sleek.
During the first year, we did custom work, but I had a collection that people ordered from. The problem was, however, that people would send their measurements in, and half of the time they were incorrect. So, in the second year, I standardized everything. I started to create stock and standard sizes, but my clothes were all cut to follow the line of a seated person. They were also cut to make it easier for people who needed help getting dressed.
You are a very established Canadian designer. Much of our local talent is now showcasing their work internationally. Looking at the sector today, how far do you think we have advanced in the last 10 years? And what are the challenges we are still facing today?
The unfortunate thing for any artist— fashion designers, actors, musicians—is that a lot of Canadians are successful when they leave the country and don’t come back. (laughs) You can do well in Canada, but you can do a lot better abroad. And then everybody is happy because you are a Canadian, and everyone is very supportive.
It’s hard because Canada doesn’t have a very big population. When I was doing my fashion collection, it was easy to sell across the country because in every province and in every major city there was this little area that would sell my designs. It was so easy to “cover” the country, but you would only be selling to about 12 stores. Economically, that made it very hard. Also, they would always buy just a little bit of my stock.
As an independent Canadian designer, without any financial support, you can’t buy advertising in Vogue, and you don’t have the means to do marketing. Plus, Canada is not a fashion market, so none of the major editors really care unless, again, you leave: like DSquared or Erdem. Another big problem is that our fashion weeks are very late, so it becomes only a PR endeavour, which is great but that doesn’t really turn into sales because all the buyers are done by then.
Marketing and branding are at the core of what many designers do these days; you must wear so many hats at the same time. You’ve branded the names of your clothing lines very consistently, and they’ve always been focused on variations of your name: Izzy Camilleri, IZ Adaptive, MIZ. How did this branding approach come together?
I guess I just have one of those easy names. If I did menswear, it would have been called HIZ. (laughs) Actually, there was one evening years ago, when I was with a friend of mine who is a comedy writer, and we decided to come up with all these names. We were really laughing about it. I think I also looked at other designers who had similar concepts, like Donna Karan or Calvin Klein.
Fast forward to today and your first book has now been published! However, it’s completely different from your past work and is focused on nutrition and healthy living. Was there a spark you decided to put all your thoughts on paper? Because this is a big jump.
Yes, it’s a leap! (laughs) When I started to lose weight a few years ago, I was approaching 50 and I thought—I need to start taking care of myself if I want to be a healthy senior, because it’s not going to happen overnight. So, I started putting together this new way of eating and it was really working and inspiring. That was when I came up with the idea of writing a book. One of my seated models for IZ Adaptive was a nutritionist, and we started talking. I was also receiving many compliments: people were telling me that my skin was very healthy-looking and literally glowing. Normally, I have a very acne-like skin, so this was very odd for me.
It all had to do with my eating habits. I was “cleaning” my liver and it was working at its optimal level. Normally, toxins come out from your skin and when there are no toxins, that’s when you have that healthy glow. It blew me away that I did that to myself without realizing what I was doing. I was very inspired by it. I wasn’t going to any organic stores, or getting special supplements; I was eating all the food groups and it was just about how I put it all together. So I thought—if I can do this, anybody can do this. The more I delved into it, the more I was thinking about how all of us are eating like crap, and not intentionally either. It’s the message I want to start promoting heavily—about eating and how it affects our health long-term. I think we really need to start talking about this more to kids too, because this is where the cycles start: our cravings for fast food, sugars and so on.
Most food-related books focus on diets, while yours is about an eating plan. How did you decide to frame the book?
I think the word “diet” is often misinterpreted. The diet is essentially what you eat, it’s not necessarily about the path to losing weight. Also, when people say, “I’m on a diet”, there is a start and a finish. People are never on a diet for the rest of their lives. I didn’t want to call it a diet, because it’s a plan, it’s a way at looking at food, and it never ends.
This is how I eat now, and I don’t even question it. I still have fun: if I’m at a party, I would have cake. Before, my weight kind of went up and down: I had kids, lost weight, gained it again. It’s everybody’s story. But every time I would be invited to a party and I would eat poorly, I would always be so devastated. I would feel like I fell off the wagon and just couldn’t get back on. I learnt that you aren’t going to gain 20 pounds that you just lost. Now I look at food as fuel, although I still enjoy everything I eat. I don’t choose food with my eyes, I choose it with my brain.
Many nutrition books are either about substituting foods or excluding them. How did you position yours?
I would say it’s a very balanced approach. I worked with a nutritionist and we put foods into three different groups: for example, you should have a protein in every meal, which doesn’t have to be a meat product. It’s about matching things properly.
The food groups in the book are called “0”, “1” and “2”. I’ve created this mathematical formula: if you add up everything on your plate to 2, you can do this. So, you can have as many foods in the 0 group as you want, and two 1s, and one 2. That’s all it is, it’s very simple! Then there is the next maintenance phase where you can add up to 3, but there are a lot of options, a lot of variables and it’s not restrictive. It’s a no-brainer. For dinner, you can have chicken, rice and vegetables and it’s a simple, healthy meal that is in the plan; or you can mix it up and do a stir fry.
Originally, I didn’t want to do a juice cleanse, for example, because it’s hard on your liver. Instead, I looked up the foods that are natural cleansers and started incorporating them into my food plan. Next, I looked up foods that are really good for your skin, bones, heart and brain—and came up with this healthy salad that I would make almost every day that would keep me full all afternoon. I started calling it my Power Salad, which I added to the book.
I learnt so much on my own that there is no turning back now, it’s just a way of life. That’s the thing about this book—it’s very simple to understand because I’m not a nutritionist. I’m a regular person who just figured it out, wanted to share and got the seal of approval from a nutritionist.
In addition to promoting your book, which can now be purchased at a variety of book stores, what other projects are you working on right now?
When IZ closed down, knowing all the challenges of being a Canadian fashion designer, I didn’t want to go down that road. I’m very fulfilled with my career, so I decided to just do work for other companies that can use my services. I still do a lot of film and television work. I also consult with Silvert’s, which works on adaptive clothing—I’m helping them lower their demographics, as previously they focused on designs for seniors. I sometimes work with local designers too. I like the variety. I still do a bit of custom work, but I don’t do a lot and I don’t want to.
The industry is really changing. The lines get so blurred these days with designer clothes: especially with collaborations with fast-fashion brands. Customers sometimes think they are getting a high-end product, but they are not. They are getting fast fashion, although it was designed by a major fashion house.
Before we wrap up, I’m fascinated by your tattoo! What is the story behind it?
It’s my Izzy Camilleri logo. It’s the only tattoo I have and I got it when I turned 50. I don’t use this logo anymore, but I really like it. It feels very geometric, gothic. It actually kind of looks like a belong to a cult. (laughs) It also feels very religious—and I’m not religious. But I’m very religious about my work.