Ailbhe is 24 years old and studied Visual Communications in NCAD. She has always had a close relationship with her sister, Izzy, who has spina bifida. Rather than feeling self conscious, Izzy has always had a really positive relationship with her disability and wheelchair. “We always loved dressing up, and for special occasions, we would decorate Izzy’s wheelchair. This always attracted lots of positive attention and gave Izzy a huge confidence boost,” says Ailbhe. So, while flowers, stickers and lights made Izzy stand out and look fabulous, they didn’t last so long; “They got wet from the rain and they would melt and be destroyed, and flowers can only last so long. I always wanted a way to decorate my wheelchair that would last, and now, thanks to Izzy Wheels, I’ve got exactly that!”
When you’re in a wheelchair, chances are that it’s the first thing people notice about you. And, let’s be honest, wheelchairs favour function over style and Izzy is quick to note this; “The reason they are so ugly is because all the money that goes into them is put towards their functionality and not their aesthetic. Never before have artists been given the chance to contribute to wheelchairs. Now, the don’t have to look like lumps of metal, they can be beautiful!”
For her final year project in NCAD, designer Ailbhe decided to do something that was close to home. “I wanted to create something to empower wheelchair users to feel more confident about their chairs. The most interesting part of the chair, for me, was the wheels; they were like big blank canvases. We came up with the tagline: ‘If you can’t stand up, stand out’ and everything was built around that concept.”
Jane Newland Wheel
And that concept has spiraled into an award winning startup that’s catching the eyes of the world. What began as doodles in college notebooks has transformed into a full time occupation for Ailbhe, and part-time for Izzy while she finishes her studies. And, it’s all happened so quickly. Ailbhe finished college in June 2016 and exhibited Izzy Wheels in the NCAD Grad Show. Luckily, someone from RTE was in the crowd and spotted the potential in Izzy Wheels. A month later they opened their online store, before their filmed TV piece went live. The orders came flooding in.
Shortly after this, Ailbhe recognised that she needed to up her business game, “I got in touch with Enterprise Ireland. They really helped me turn the project into a business. We got a place on their New Frontiers Entrepreneur Development Program, a six month fully funded training program which transformed the way I approached the everyday running of the business.” Now based in NDRC, they are surrounded by all sorts of inspiring digital start-ups and mentors that are keen to help Izzy Wheels grow.
Kim Sielbeck Wheel
Most impressive is that, in the year since they’ve launched, they have won seven national awards, garnered 15 million views of their online videos, became the first Irish people to take over Instagram’s official account (just the 225 million followers), were the top story on Tech Crunch and Adobe Create, shipped Izzy Wheels to 25 countries, won Enterprise Ireland’s Female Founders Competitive Start Fund Investment, earned a spot in NDRC (voted number one University Business Accelerator in Europe and number two in the world) and have collaborated with 25 world famous artists. A dizzying list, and a huge amount to achieve in one year.
Collaboration is a huge part of Izzy Wheels. Though Ailbhe is a designer herself, Izzy Wheels was able to recognise that different personalities are best reflected in different styles of design. “The idea for the artist collaboration came about when we were asked to be part of the Irish Wheelchair Association fashion show. There were 12 wheelchair-using models taking part and I really wanted each person to have their own special design. I thought it would be cool to ask some well-known designers if they would be interested in creating a wheel. I couldn’t believe it when everyone said yes!”
Marylou Faure Wheel
“After that all our collections became collaborations because people loved the diversity of design styles. Since the viral success online we now have illustrators, graphic designers and artists writing to us every day from around the world asking can they donate designs to us.”
Boasting an impressive list of collaborators such as Maser, Brosmind, Steve Simpson, Ruan Van Vilet, Fuchsia MacAree, Bodil Jane and many more, Izzy Wheels are stand out for all the right reasons. “We really get to know the designers and are in close contact with all of them still. They’ve really become our friends,” notes Ailbhe. As for who is next? “We are obsessed with Iris Apfel! She is our style icon and queen. We are also keen to collaborate with more fashion brands. We would love to do a collection with Kenzo.” So if you guys are reading this and have a contact for them, send them Izzy Wheels! Or Iris, Carol and Humberto, if you’re reading this, get in contact.
Orla Kiely Wheel
And what really attracts the designers to Izzy Wheels is the passion they have for their business. ‘It really doesn’t feel like work because we love everything about our job and people recognise that immediately from speaking to us.’
Along with wheelchair fashion, Izzy Wheels plans to get into other aspects of disability fashion. “Wheelchair users are a very overlooked group of people in society, especially when it comes to fashion. Clothes are not designed for people sitting, they are designed for people standing. Going shopping for a wheelchair user is a daunting and frustrating task. We are creating a fashion brand with seated people in mind.”
Izzy Wheels also works with charities - a portion of the proceeds from their two previous collections go to disability charities here in Ireland; the Irish Wheelchair Association and Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland. Honestly, these girls might be too good for their own good.
Loulou and Tummie Wheel
Izzy Wheels are set to be a part of BBC’s Amazing Humans, though they aren’t at liberty to say what that entails just yet. You can keep up with their groundbreaking designs on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And if you fancy buying one, or designing one yourself, check out their website.
We can’t wait to see what they do next.