Ailbhe Keane of Izzy Wheels on pimped out wheelchairs, spreading positivity and their new collaboration with Barbie

Ailbhe and Izzy, founders of Izzy Wheels, photo by Sarah Doyle, wheels by Timothy Goodman

"If you can't stand up, stand out!", reads the positive strapline for Izzy Wheels – the colourful brand that collaborates with leading artists, designers and brands to create unique wheelchair covers.

Founded by two Irish sisters, Ailbhe and Izzy Keane, their bright and vibrant designs transform a medical device into a piece of fashion and self-expression.

Collaborations so far include Malike Favre, Hattie Stewart, Callen Schaub, Craig & Karl, Kelly Anna, Timothy Goodman, Orla Kiely, Supermundane and Camille Walala. Just this week, Izzy Wheels has announced its partnership with Barbie.

We chatted to Ailbhe about how it all began, their recent big news and what they have planned next for Izzy Wheels.

How did your brand get started?

My little sister, Izzy, was born with spina bifida and is paralysed from her waist down. Growing up she found it very frustrating and upsetting that her wheelchair was the first thing that people would notice about her but it wasn’t a reflection of her bright and bubbly personality.

She has always had a very positive relationship with her chair and sees it as a symbol of her ability, not her disability. I studied art in university and when I was in my final year, in 2016, I created a range of wheel covers for my sister’s chair that matched her outfits. I created an Instagram account called @izzywheels and uploaded photos of Izzy modelling her colourful new wheels and it just went completely viral online.

One of our videos was viewed three million times in one day and suddenly we were getting messages from wheelchair users and designers from all over the world. We decided to launch an online store selling our designs and have never looked back.

How does it feel to be empowering so many people's lives? Making so many people smile?

We feel so lucky to have created something that makes people smile and brings colour into peoples lives. We also feel very privileged when people write to us and share their stories about living with a disability and how Izzy Wheels had helped shape their outlook.

TRIUMPH by Callen Schaub, photo by Ailbhe Keane, Mural by Subset

TRIUMPH by Callen Schaub, photo by Ailbhe Keane, Mural by Subset

Wheels by Supermundane, photo by Sarah Doyle

Wheels by Supermundane, photo by Sarah Doyle

How has Izzy Wheels transformed your own lives?

Izzy Wheels has transformed our lives for the better. We’ve had the opportunity to work with some of our favourite designers and brands. It’s also brought us even closer together as sisters.

Do you find power in colour and creativity?

Our brand is super colourful as you can see from our Instagram. The branding for Izzy Wheels is honestly just an extension of ourselves and our personalities. We have always dressed in bold prints and loud colours and that’s become such a major part of our brand's identity.

Mental health is becoming a larger conversation. How do you both stay mentally well?

It’s really important to be able to say no to certain opportunities. We are only two people and when you take on too much you start getting pulled in too many directions and it gets overwhelming. It's so important to make enough time for yourself to do things you enjoy outside of work. For me, it's important for my mental health to always feel inspired. I get inspiration from conversations with my friends, going for a walk into town, reading a magazine, listening to a podcast, going to the gym, drawing, cooking a delicious meal from scratch, baking cookies and watching tv with my housemates.

Wheels by Hola Lou, photo by Sarah Doyle

Wheels by Hola Lou, photo by Sarah Doyle

Tarsila Schubert

Tarsila Schubert

Many people who end up needing a wheelchair, for whatever reason, often struggle with the adjustment. What would you say to them?

Izzy has been a wheelchair user all of her life so it’s not something that she had to suddenly come to terms with. Having a disability has always been part of her identity and it’s something that she’s proud of. For someone who hasn’t always had a disability, it can be a big adjustment. Izzy’s advice is to see your wheelchair as a symbol of your independence, not your disability.

Who designed your first ever wheels? Tell us the story behind it.

I designed the first range of wheel covers as a project in college. I designed wheel covers to match Izzy’s favourite outfits. When the designs got such a positive reaction online I reached out to a few designers who I knew and loved and asked them did they want to design a wheel cover for us. We decided to do our first collaboration collection and selected eight Irish designers and put on a fashion show with the Irish Wheelchair Association as a fundraiser. We called it the ‘Roll Models’ fashion show and it was a huge success.

After that, we were inundated with messages from designers who wanted to create wheel covers for us. We’ve now had over a thousand applications from designers and brands who’ve asked to collaborate with us.

When do you think the brand took off?

In 2017 Instagram asked us to take over their official story for a full day. It had a reach of 250 million people.

Tell us something about yourselves that might surprise us

We used to be very shy people and very scared to be in the spotlight. Public speaking quickly became a major part of our job so we had to work on that. We had to take classes to learn how to not get nervous on stage or in television interviews. Now public speaking is one of our absolute favourite things and we are very comfortable speaking to crowds. We just needed to believe in ourselves and most importantly be authentic.

What advice would you give to anyone out there thinking about starting a business?

Don’t just follow the money, create a business that makes the world a better place. When you start a business you’ll need to pour your heart and soul into it so make it something you are passionate about.

Izzy Jessie and Lucy, photo by Sarah Doyle

Izzy Jessie and Lucy, photo by Sarah Doyle

Congrats on the new Barbie collab! The brand has come a long way. How do you feel about its new range?

Our brother got us a gift of a vintage wheelchair Barbie years ago. We’ve kept her as our little mascot on our desk in our studio and used her as a model for our wheel covers sometimes. We made her a little pair of Izzy Wheels for International Wheelchair Day last year and someone from Mattel saw it online and loved it. We then got a call from the Barbie team a few months ago and they told us they adore our brand and asked us if we were interested in collaborating with them. It was like a dream come true!

It's so important that children have toys that represent them. Having a doll who uses a wheelchair or has a prosthetic limb normalises disabilities from a young age. The new range of Barbies also includes dolls with different skin tones and body shapes, which is great.

Barbie x Izzy Wheels by Hattie Stewart

Barbie x Izzy Wheels by Hattie Stewart

Barbie x Izzy Wheels by Hattie Stewart design

Barbie x Izzy Wheels by Hattie Stewart design

Did you ever imagine how far your brand could go? How does it feel? You must be on top of the world?

We come from a big family of six and we are the two youngest. I am four years older than Izzy and we’ve been best pals since she was born. When we were little, our favourite thing to do was decorate Izzy’s chair for special occasions. For Christmas, we would fill her wheels with lights and bobbles and for parties, we’d put multicoloured ribbons and flowers. It always created loads of positive attention and Izzy loved when people complimented her wheels.

When people smiled and complimented her chair it gave her a huge confidence boost. Looking back we never could have imagined that it would become our profession! We have the best time travelling around with Izzy Wheels and coming up with new ideas together.