Poison Into Medicine: How Breast Cancer Inspired My Swimwear Start-up

My life has been full of change. British born, I spent most of my youth between Canada and Jamaica before returning to the UK an adult. I've moved careers from Central St Martins trained Fine Artist to Accessories Designer, Women’s Physiotherapist to Period Costume Designer.

Throughout my life I have always desired to be more independent through running my own business but didn’t feel I had the ability, skills or confidence to do so. It took dealing with a diagnosis of breast cancer to see I hold skills and experience useful to develop a start-up business, and so began my journey to design & manufacture confidence-boosting swimwear to supply the growing global community of women living with and beyond breast cancer.

Whilst working on a project making Victorian-style costumes for the Selfridges Christmas windows, I found a lump in my right breast. All medical screening missed the lump’s severity, and my clinicians decided my lump was not cancerous as I was ‘too young’ and sent me home.

However I intuitively knew something didn’t feel right and insisted the lump be removed. It was found to be highly aggressive triple negative cancer. My life completely changed.

A small number (approximately five percent) of all women under 45 develop breast cancer. To reduce my chances of an aggressive recurrence common with triple negative breast cancer, I made the tough choice to have a mastectomy with reconstruction. As incredible as these surgeries (and surgeons) are, the results are unpredictable and never perfectly symmetrical.

Whilst recovering from multiple breast reconstruction surgeries I felt isolated as no one from my family or friends had been through this experience. My negative feelings were compounded by the fact my body and also my self-esteem had changed; I couldn’t wear most of my clothing or any of my swimwear and lingerie which I had lovingly collected over the years.

I couldn’t wear any of my favorite clothing that helped me feel most attractive at a time when I needed to the most.

Despite exhaustive searches, I couldn’t find lingerie or swimwear that was stylishly designed and youthful whilst practical enough to conceal my breast differences during my lengthy reconstructions and revisions. In desperation I began to customise maternity lingerie.

 To overcome the challenge of the lack of designer mastectomy swimwear I felt confident enough to wear whilst learning to dive  on a dream holiday to Bali, I designed and made a, frilly feminine bikini which disguised my asymmetry for myself. Wearing it to achieve my PADI Open Water diving certificate helped me feel confident; this was the beginning of my return to feeling like myself again.

On my return I felt other women must be in my position, still left wanting for mastectomy swimwear that addressed their fashion and practical needs more exactly.

Communicating with women in  online breast cancer forums such as Breast Cancer Care I found women of all ages who shared my views. I began to reconstruct my self-identity once I felt I had joined a global community of women ‘living with and beyond cancer’.

With these women I shared my experience of mourning my bikinis and lingerie to discover this was echoed by others.

Even women in their 60’s and 70’s expressed dissatisfaction in what was available and how old it made them feel. These conversations became the initial research for my soon-to-emerge business.  I am very grateful to these amazing women who each contributed to my personal recovery at this time.

Taking time out to recover from surgery at first gave me low self-esteem, but I came to realise I could use this time to help assess my career-direction and so I made the decision to do something about the problems I had experienced.  I felt I needed to address the problem not only for me, but also for the millions of underserved and underrepresented women in the same situation. More surgery is always an option for women with breast imbalances, but shouldn’t be the only option. We want good looking comfortable clothing that can conceal differences. Women live with breast imbalances, and situations where revealing more of their bodies (on holiday, at the spa, by the pool, at the beach…) can leave them feeling vulnerable and exposed.

After researching existing breast cancer specialist shops, trade magazines, Keynote research papers and attending the trade shows I found little in the market came close to addressing the needs of my new community. I knew now I had to create my own collection to fill this niche.

I decided to study Lingerie design & manufacturing at Kensington & Chelsea College, and Swimwear at the London College of Fashion, qualified as an advanced bra fitter, and interned with a leading post-surgery online retailer to help understand the wider market. I partnered with a wonderful pattern cutters and sample machinists who translate my designs drawn from my past experience in Fine Art, Costume Design and Physiotherapy, and developed style prototypes which I have tested and refined with women whom had breast surgery, and now Clover Lewis Swimwear to preparing for manufacture.

During my research I discovered a London based competition, Brand Amplifier, for young businesswomen which I entered to help me better understand the marketing needs of a new business. Being a finalist in this competition helped me realise my value to my business and how I needed to be open to my experiences in order to build a story around my idea. I started to value myself as a woman with real experience behind my brand, which added great value to my business idea. I had previously kept my experiences very private, so this was quite a revelation! This came as an unexpected bonus to my project that helped focus my efforts, giving me courage, confidence and a feeling of professional self-worth -  all values I found to be vital to a successful businesswoman.

Now, four years after a breast cancer diagnosis my life appears to be changing again. I realise I’ve turned poison into medicine. I am poised to bring Clover Lewis Swimwear to market with the first collection available spring/summer 2015!

Warmest, Clover