Click on the Izzy Wheels website and you might think you've landed upon the Hermès of wheelchairs. The wheelchair spoke covers by Izzy Wheels are "masterpieces for your wheels", bursting with colour and energy and very much in keeping with the style and personalities of the Izzy Wheels team, sisters Ailbhe and Izzy Keane. The two young women have now collaborated with one of the world's most famous (albeit plastic) female icons of all time: Barbie.
As part of the recent European launch of Mattel's wheelchair user Barbie, Ailbhe and Isabel (Izzy) worked with the toy giant to create four limited edition Izzy x Barbie wheelchair wheel covers. Barbie fans can now accessorise their Barbie's wheelchair with an Izzy Wheels design by artists Annu Kilpeläinen, Malika Favre, Hattie Stewart and Art School, and can also buy a matching set of wheel covers for themselves.
"We were thrilled to get on board with Barbie because it just normalises things," says Ailbhe, who came up with the idea for Izzy Wheels for her final-year project at the National College of Art and Design.
“Many people go through their whole childhood without knowing a wheelchair user or someone who uses a mobility device. Then, when they become adults, they don’t know how to deal with it or what to ask a person, whereas if they are familiar with it from an early age, it’s a very positive thing.”
This positivity and openness is key to the ethos behind the Izzy Wheels brand. The brand’s tagline is “If you can’t stand up, stand out!” The sisters wanted to enhance people’s lives through design, to allow users to reflect their personalities through their choice of wheel covers, and, in doing so, to open up the conversation around disability.
“One of the biggest challenges that myself and other wheelchair users encounter when we meet people who don’t use a wheelchair, or don’t know a wheelchair user, is how to portray it in a way that is positive,” says Izzy, who was born with spina bifida and has used a wheelchair all her life. She is the brand’s ambassador and studies French, sociology and politics at NUIG.
“I have a really positive relationship with my wheelchair and my disability, but it can be very complex to explain that to someone I am meeting for the first time.”
Izzy believes that this is partly due to the cold, overtly medical appearance of wheelchairs which are not, in any aesthetic sense, attractive objects, yet offer freedom and independence to those who use them. “Wheelchairs are so much more than a medical device and having a visual representation of that is a very positive thing,” she says.
With their new Barbie wheelchair, Mattel have fixed certain aspects of "Becky" – Barbie's friend from the 1990s who was a wheelchair user but whose chair did not fit inside the Barbie Dreamhouse, much to the chagrin of consumers. This time around, Barbie's wheelchair is a much more realistic one with rolling wheels, a working brake and, essentially, a ramp to enable her to enter the Barbie Dreamhouse.
This particular Barbie is part of the Fashionistas range which includes curvy, tall and petite dolls, as well as a doll with a limb difference and a removable prosthetic leg. The Fashionistas range seeks to be more racially diverse too, with a range of skin tones, eye shapes and hair colours and textures, making them a far cry from the stereotypical blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbies of our youth.
“It’s so important for children to have toys and dolls that they can relate to. I think it is really important for children’s development and makes you feel so much more secure,” Izzy says.
Inclusion and diversity might be buzzwords right now; are brands getting it right, or is it all just lip service? “Inclusion in any way, even if it is not executed perfectly, is positive and is a step in the right direction,” she says.
Starting with collaborations in 2017 for an Irish Wheelchair Association charity fashion show Roll Models, which included designs by artists Conor Merriman, Steven Simpson, Fuchsia McAree and Paula McGloin among others, Izzy Wheels has gone on to collaborate with more than 60 artists and designers, including Peter Donnelly, Timothy Goodman, Kitty McCall and Helen Steele. They currently have about 1,000 designers on their waiting list keen to get involved.
The sisters have won multiple awards, and were named in the Forbes “30 Under 30” list of promising entrepreneurs in 2018.
With 44,000 followers on Instagram and more than 11,000 on Facebook, the Izzy Wheels social media community attracts both art lovers and wheelchair users alike who are interested in their designs, as well as in the stories of their “Spokes People” – real-life users of Izzy Wheels wheel covers from around the world (the Izzy Wheels team loves a good pun).
Having collaborated with big names such as Maser, Orla Kiely, and now, Barbie, what's next for Izzy Wheels? "We'd love to collaborate with Disney, " Ailbhe says. "And, in fashion terms, Kenzo is top of our list."
Whatever happens, we reckon they’ll just roll with it.