“If you can’t stand up, stand out” is the motto of two Galway sisters Ailbhe and Isabel Keane, who are transforming the image of wheelchairs into “a piece of fashion and self-expression” with their colourful and zany wheelchair covers.
Founded just a year ago and sparked by the fact that Isabel was born with spina bifida and is paralysed from the waist down, Izzy Wheels has given a vibrant new look to an otherwise standard utilitarian medical device. “We are reinventing the wheel” chips 24-year-old creative director Ailbhe, who explains the idea grew from a college project at NCAD when she was studying visual communication.
“I wanted to do something that would empower people (like Isabel) living with a long-term lifestyle-related health condition – and that would mean something to me. So I played around with the wheel as a shape and developed bags to match the wheels,” she explains. Her project earned her a first class honours degree.
The sisters’ strong fashion sense and love of colour is obvious from the way they dress. “We are both very bubbly people and have always loved dressing up and wearing very colourful clothes. Even as a child, Isabel loved designing her wheelchairs and it gave her such confidence when people would say ‘I love your wheels’,” says Ailbhe, showing me childhood photos. “I would never wear black,” says Isabel (20), a student of sociology, politics and French at NUIG.
“Me and Ailbhe are like rainbows. If you dress colourfully it makes you happy and makes other smile as well.”
According to Ailbhe, their mother’s variegated garden has had a “massive” influence on their style. “I like bright block colours mixed with print and wear a lot of florals. I mix vintage with high street and like trying things on rather than buying online. Colours are never the same on screen as in reality. My favourite shop is Flamingo in Barcelona where I lived for a year on an Erasmus programme.”
She points out that her sister sees her wheelchair as a symbol of freedom, but explains how difficult and frustrating it is to shop. “Clothes are not designed for people who are sitting, so your clothes become buckled, your sleeves filthy and you get soaked in the rain. The only good thing is that shoes look brand new every day.”
For Isabel, leggings and loose clothes are a must “because they are so easy to get on and off, but it is the kind of stuff I have to wear because when you are sitting all day, things ride up and down. We are also trying to conquer the problem of accessing the pockets of handbags because they are hard to reach into – that’s another stumbling block, but we are working on it. Clothing for wheelchair users is designed by hospitals and the aesthetics are often ugly. We want to change that.”
In the last year, Izzy Wheels has collaborated with many award-winning illustrators at home and abroad, most recently with fashion designer Orla Kiely. Other artists include Maser, Steve Simpson, Paula McGloin, Fuchsia MacAree, Chris Judge and Marylou Faure. “We now have 25 designs from all around the world,” says Ailbhe. “We are building a whole world around us and now you can match your wheels with your outfit and change them like you change your shoes.”
The business flourished with a grant from Enterprise Ireland and a six-month training programme. Last May, a video on entertainment magazine Insider about the sisters was viewed more than 14 million times and earlier this summer they were the first Irish people to be invited to take over Instagram's official account, which had a reach of 225 million people. "Everything exploded then – we had more orders in a day than in a month," recalls Ailbhe. Now they ship to more than 25 countries with 80 per cent of sales from the USA and within one year of trading have won seven national awards.
In spring, the sisters will fly to New York on a fashion and innovation trip to meet top design houses, their dream being to meet style icon Iris Apfel, who is now 97 and in a wheelchair. Worldwide there are 65 million wheelchair users, with 40,000 in Ireland, and the Keanes’ future plans include more sporting and adventure-related designs aimed at guys.
“Because we are girly girls we didn’t think about the boys – but most of my friends are guys in wheelchairs who are interested in jazzing up their chairs and looking good – and breaking down the stigma. The whole premise of our business is to be inclusive,” says Isabel.
They are social media stars too with 32,000 followers on Instagram and creating what they call a “spokesperson” campaign to build a community of wheelchair users internationally. “We are creating a voice for users – it makes them feel considered because they feel overlooked.” The waterproof covers, which come in three sizes and fit onto any manual wheelchair, are made in lightweight laminated plastic with a vinyl finish and made in Dublin.
They cost €139 – “the same price as a nice handbag or coat”, smiles Ailbhe. “We want to show the world that wheelchairs can be so much more than a medical device, they can be a piece of artistic self expression.”