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Fashion designer Dee Izmail’s career has been a bit of a rollercoaster with amazing highs, but many difficult lows. She has worked with the Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child, but nearly lost her baby daughter to a disease which damages the heart. Dee herself has also had undetected chronic leukaemia.
To have faced all of this and kept her career going despite tremendous family pressure for her to give up work is something of an achievement and says far more about female empowerment than the Spice Girls’ ‘Girl Power’ slogan.
Dee is now relaunching her fashion label and promoting the charity she launched to raise awareness and funding for the disease that affected her now grown-up daughter.
This is her story.
Dee got into fashion at an early age. Her mum was a designer and through her she learnt how to sew by the age of just 12. By 15 she was an apprentice to her mother. By 16 she was dancing, modelling and designing, dreaming of being a famous dancer or actress.
She graduated with a fashion diploma, left home and started working in the commercial fashion industry as well as making outfits for dancers whilst she worked in a dance group. Dee found it a struggle to conform to the commercial sector as she was interested in the more creative side of fashion. For the next four years, she “dabbled” in fashion, doing freelance design/pattern cutting and spending some time working in Istanbul.
“I felt I wanted to have my own brand, but I didn’t know how to build it. Despite hands on experience I needed an outlet and a team,” she says. She decided to sell her flat and start her own boutique in Roman Road in East London where she lived above the shop.
One day in 1989 Paula Yates’ stylist came into the shop and commissioned some leather hipster trousers. Then Cheryl Baker commissioned Dee for an outfit for the relaunch of Bucks Fizz.
The commissions boosted Dee’s confidence and in 1993, as the club scene was burgeoning, she took a concession at Hyper Hyper in Kensington High Street where she developed her club-inspired designs which reflected her passion for music and dance. “I became the PVC queen overnight,” she says. She attracted fashion editorials and production companies from various sectors of film, music and fashion and her work featured in commercials, magazines, exhibitions and boutiques around the world.
All of this was happening, however, while Dee was going through a turbulent period at home. Her son was born prematurely in 1991 and a year later her daughter Nadia was born. Dee was living with her husband and kids in a flat over her Roman Road boutique at the time.
At seven months, Nadia developed a bad fever. Dee took her to the doctor’s and was told it was an infection. She was given penicillin, but Nadia got worse. She came out in a rash and had ulcers. She lost her appetite. The doctor said she might be allergic to penicillin and gave her a cream. After seven days and having seen many GPs, Nadia’s condition got worse with signs of skin peeling.
On the 11th day of her illness, Dee took Nadia to the local A & E. A South African nurse saw Nadia and said it looked like something he’d seen much of in South Africa, Kawasaki Disease. The nurse told the A & E doctor and a heart scan that showed Nadia had developed two aneurysms which could have caused a cardiac arrest at any time.
KD mainly affects children under five. It causes blood vessels throughout the body to become inflamed and can lead to the formation of coronary artery aneurysms in the heart. Without treatment coronary artery problems occur in up to 25% of patients and about 1% die. However, many cases are undetected and can result in long-term damage to the heart.
At the time, the disease was often not being picked up by UK doctors and Dee decided to set up a charity – the Kawasaki Fund – to raise awareness about it and the long-term harmful and potentially fatal consequences. “There are six classic symptoms of Kawasaki Disease; fever lasting more than five days, a rash, swollen glands in the neck, dry, cracked lips, red infected eyes and peeling of fingers and toes,” says Dee. “If your child has four of these you need to tell the doctor.”
Dee spent 10 days in hospital with Nadia, saying “she looked like a little rag doll”. Nadia needed gamma globulin and a blood transfusion to reboot her immune system, which was damaged by the disease. She was put on high doses of two types of aspirin. The doctors said that as her body grew, it was hoped her aneurysms would stay small and her immune system would fight back. The years that followed involved numerous hospital visits, but by the age of 10 Nadia had a scan which showed her body had recovered.
“What worries me, though,” says Dee, “is children who are not diagnosed or are misdiagnosed so that it goes undetected and the underlying conditions it causes are not picked up.” She mentions John Travolta’s 16-year-old son Jett who died of a seizure as a result of undetected Kawasaki Disease.
As all this was happening, Dee was moving into a very busy period at work. She had expanded her brand and opened a flagship store in Covent Garden. She was getting commissions from people like the Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child and film companies like Warner Bros whilst she established her collections.
The family had moved to Epping where they had a nanny and Dee was commuting to London on a motorbike so she could get home quickly for her children each evening.
“It was an incredibly stressful time,” she says, adding that she suffered a miscarriage during this period. The stress was worsened, she says, by her family’s lack of support for her career. Dee is from a Turkish background and her family is very traditional. She says they and her husband made her feel like a bad mother because she did not want to give up her career and be a stay-at-home mother. She felt incredibly guilty and yet, she says, going to work kept her sane.
“It was made clear to me that my family were not going to help me to pursue any ‘selfish’ goals,” she says, adding that she feels her husband saw her success as a threat. “I felt anything I did was not good enough. I was at the height of my career and I had to go with it,” she says.
Despite the lack of family support and the fact that balancing full-on work and family commitments meant she had few close friends, Dee kept going and found herself being interviewed by Prince Andrew about her work for the Spice Girls at a trade fair in South Korea in 1997.
She says: “My work was important to me, though I was always aware that my children were the most important thing in my life. What’s more, I was convinced I had done nothing wrong.”
When the lease on her Covent Garden store came to an end in 2000 and the rent went up, Dee made the difficult decision to close the store and come out of retail, although she continued to design under commission for the likes of Isla Fisher. “I was exhausted in every way,” she says. “I felt I need to give something consistent to my kids.” She also knew that she wanted to get a divorce as her marriage had become toxic and she knew that was not going to be easy.
In the event, she fought for custody of her children for five years and lost the battle. The stress affected her health. In 2004 she was diagnosed with leukaemia and had six months of chemotherapy. She freelanced a couple of days a week while she was recovering which she says was an important distraction from what was going on in her personal life. She then took two years out to look after her mother who had returned to Cyprus after being diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and spent three years embroiled in another legal case with her ex-husband in which she lost £25K.
Since then she has been working in the commercial sector and learning more about the business side of fashion and rebuilding her charity and fashion label.
She applied three times for Lottery funding to start fashion, photographic and modelling workshops and finally won funding to set up workshops in Harlow in Essex.
She is keen that the space above the shop is used for creative community-led events, such as art workshops, and wants to get more Trustees on board and link up with the British Heart Foundation, who she has been in touch with.
Dee has also set her designer label up in south west London and has been designing party wear and day into evening wear as well as a “sexy” wedding dress collection. Her collection has been filmed and her online shop is up and ready to go.
“It’s a more grown-up style, but with a funky edge,” she says, adding it is for all ages. “Women over 50 shouldn’t be invisible because of our age,” she says. “Mums often get taken for granted. We have to think we deserve a bit of glamour even if others don’t. We have to remember to look after ourselves.”
*For more information about the Kawasaki Fund, go to http://www.kawasakifund.com/