Dame Deborah James inspires a range of feelings in anyone who comes across her story: admiration first and foremost, combined with sadness for her family and a determination to understand more about bowel cancer, the disease she has campaigned to raise awareness for since she was diagnosed with it five years ago. The most surprising emotion she engenders, though, is joy.
It should feel wrong to look at images of a 40-year-old woman with two young children who is receiving end of life care and smile. And yet we do, mostly because of her own delighted grin about her recently received damehood, her soon-to-be-published book ‘How to be Happy when you could be Dead’, and the pale pink Deborah James rose that was unveiled at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Her latest venture is particularly cheering – a collection of full-sleeved, very summery cotton dresses released in collaboration with In The Style. Anyone who has been following James on Instagram over the last few weeks will have noted that while the former deputy headteacher and BBC podcast host can no longer walk, she has still been wearing a series of wonderfully pretty dresses in full bloom prints and pale white lace. Now it has been confirmed that these pieces were her own designs and will be available to pre-order (the launch was moved forward so James would be alive for it) for the next 48 hours.
“The reason why I wanted to do this collection with In The Style is because it has been something totally different to cancer for me,” says James. “I love fashion and anyone who knows me or has followed me for years knows I love my dresses and I am always hunting for the best prints.When we started work on this collection, I didn’t realise that I’d be living a hybrid life between home and hospital, and even from hospital, we’ve made this happen. It has been a project that I have really enjoyed, and above all, it has given me something else to think about.”
The collection comprises 18 pieces - dresses, skirts, blazers, shirts and hair accessories - and will be available in sizes 6-28, with prices starting at £8 and rising to a still very affordable £55. All proceeds will go to the BowelBabe fund, which was founded by James and her family earlier this month to fund clinical trials and research into new treatments, as well as to raise awareness of bowel cancer. Over the last 10 days, James has already raised over £6 million, including £400,000 from a T-shirt collaboration with In The Style, featuring her slogan, ‘Rebellious Hope’.
James was approached months ago by In The Style founder Adam Frisby, who told her that he loved the way she used fashion to feel better and get through the day. This is something many women who have battled cancer will understand. ‘I love clothes. They make me happy,” James said simply - adding that dressing up makes her feel like herself. Particularly joyful outfits included the red and white floral dress she wore to the Chelsea Flower Show, and the white embroidered dress she was in when she met Prince William - both these dresses are available to preorder now.
“It was never my intention to die before [the collection] was released,” she said today in a video on Instagram, “I'm really gutted about it. But I hope it brings you joy and it makes you feel great when you put it on. Know that I was there every step of the way, thinking about every single one of these pieces.”
Clearly, James is determined to eek out every bit of pleasure from her remaining days and has vowed to wear as much as she possibly can from her collection. “From now until I die I’m wearing a different dress every day,” she says, “which sounds slightly odd and morbid but I’m enjoying it so much.
Admiration, sadness and joy, all at once…