When Caroline Kennedy Alexander walked on set of Dragon’s Den earlier this year to pitch for investment in her lingerie brand, she was thinking of her sisters.
She is one of six sisters, four of whom have been diagnosed with breast cancer, including Caroline herself. LoveRose Lingerie is designed for women who have had breast surgery, with a focus on post-cancer, and is named for her sister who died of cancer in 2014. She lost a second sister to the disease earlier this year.
‘There’s a real purpose behind this brand,’ says Caroline, over Zoom from the Edinburgh studio that is LoveRose’s HQ. ‘It was born from my own experience and seeing my sisters go through it too. I wanted to create something that gives you a little bit of yourself back.’
Developed with designer Sarah Bell Jones, who faced the Dragons with Caroline, the wire-free bras are cleverly engineered to support up to a G cup – without looking like the matronly constructions generally available to women who have had a mastectomy.
One of the Dragons, retail tycoon Touker Suleyman, dismissed the brand as ‘too niche’. Perhaps he doesn’t realise that breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, with 1 in 7 women diagnosed in their lifetime. There are 55,920 new cases every year; more than 150 every day. And breast cancer survival rates have doubled in the last 40 years, so there is a huge market of women who need post-cancer support – literally and figuratively.
I am one of them, having been diagnosed with breast cancer last year, aged 40. Mastectomy surgery left me feeling like a swollen, scarred shell of the person I used to be, and deeply unsexy. Emotional support is vital, of course. But it’s the physical things – my hair and eyelashes growing back post-chemo, and getting back into nice lingerie – that are slowly making me feel like me again.
Caroline and Sarah met in a vintage shop in Edinburgh, got chatting about fashion, and realised very quickly what a great team they would be. ‘We have the first bra that we ever made together in a frame,’ laughs Sarah.
Since then, they have worked with Professor Carolyn Mair, author of The Psychology of Fashion, who provided the scientific substance behind what they instinctively knew to be true about the power of what you wear. ‘It's the cognitive reinforcement of having clothing that makes you feel better and feel cared for,’ explains Sarah. ‘It gives you confidence, and that’s really life-changing. It's not the only piece of the puzzle, but it's such an important one. It’s not vanity, and it's not something to be overlooked.’
Caroline agrees that the physical recovery, and overcoming the emotional trauma of breast cancer surgery, go hand in hand. ‘They are not separate,’ she says. ‘It’s about finding a sense of yourself again. That’s so crucial. Someone with no experience of it might think that you have your operation and then you go back to normal, but no,’ Caroline says with a rueful laugh. ‘You do not.’
She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, but it was when the cancer returned in 2015 that she underwent a double mastectomy with reconstruction. ‘One of the hardest things for me was the psychological part of dressing myself again, and looking at my breasts in the morning…’ She falters, then says simply: ‘It’s just dealing with a new body.’
Caroline describes the experience of shopping for post-surgery bras, and being dismissed by uninformed shop assistants while struggling to find something comfortable and supportive that also looks good. ‘There’s no way in the world that Touker Suleyman could understand how that makes you feel,’ she sighs. ‘We're trying to help people feel better about themselves.’
Of course, there are many different types of breast surgery. Some women may not have had reconstruction so the bras include pockets to hold a prosthesis. Others may have had implants, or DIEP flap surgery, where the breast is reconstructed using flesh from elsewhere on your body. They may still have their original nipple, or have a cosmetically created one.
They may have had lymph nodes removed, in which case it’s vital that the bra fits comfortably under the arm. Sarah explains to me in technical detail how the innovative ‘hammocks’ provide support, and why it’s so important where the seams go. And Caroline knows exactly what women need after breast surgery.
‘When I was first diagnosed, they tried to preserve my breasts, but I ended up having five operations to try and scoop it out because the margins kept not being clear,’ Caroline explains. ‘Then I had radiotherapy which, to this day, restricts the skin on one side of my body. The second time, I had to have a double mastectomy. So, when we were designing the bras, I knew exactly what a wide excision feels like, and what reconstruction with implants feels like. My sister had DIEP flap reconstruction, and we worked with focus groups through (cancer charity) Maggie’s so we knew the different journeys that people were having to take.’
The bras all have playful names and my personal favourite is See You At Nine, which has subtle support, made from recycled lace with gold hardware. It’s the most comfortable bra I’ve ever worn, even pre-cancer. Their front-fastening Honey I’m Home bra is made with breathable jersey and perfect if you need a bra comfortable enough to sleep in.
The products are also ideal for after aesthetic breast augmentation and, actually, for anyone who wants a supportive bra without uncomfortable seams and underwiring - regardless of whether or not they’ve had surgery. ‘We have clients who have bought See You At Nine in every colour, even though they’ve never had surgery,’ says Caroline.
The price point (around £85-£95 for a bra) also worried the Dragons, but the products are made sustainably, using recycled lace and silk. They are a luxury item, expensive to produce, and why shouldn’t women who have been through breast cancer have that option? When people ask me for recommendations of what to buy a friend with breast cancer, I always suggest something decadent: a rich moisturiser, silk nightwear or cashmere socks, because those luxuries make a huge difference during the grim slog of cancer treatment. Now, I would suggest a LoveRose gift card. They also do silk robes if you want to buy a physical gift but are unsure about bra sizing.
‘A friend of mine wore her LoveRose bra all through chemo and said it felt like wearing a hug,’ says Sarah proudly. ‘That’s what we’re trying to achieve. No one saw it, but it made her feel better.’ Caroline adds: ‘We get so many messages from women saying how much it means to them.’
They’re also working on an Essentials range of more affordable basics, which will maintain the brand’s ethos of beauty, comfort and sustainability and will be available later this year. The products are mostly available online, but are starting to appear in more physical stores, and Caroline and Sarah offer fittings by video call to ensure women can get the right size for them.
That episode of Dragon’s Den was actually filmed nearly a year ago and, since then, LoveRose has been enthusiastically endorsed by the likes of Trinny Woodall who declared it ‘a phenomenal brand’. So Caroline and Sarah didn’t get investment from the Dragons but, with a post-cancer army of women like me desperate to feel like themselves again, something tells me they’ll do just fine.
LoveRose Lingerie is available online
How to find the perfect post-surgery bra
By lingerie stylist Monica Harrington
Some hospitals give you a bra to wear straight after surgery, but not all of them do so it’s good to be prepared. Make sure it’s front-fastening and, if you’re having reconstruction at the same time, you need a bra with compression.
When trying on a bra, the band around the body should be level - that gives about 80% of your support. If it’s riding up at the back, the front will be dropping down.
Ensure all of your breast is contained within the cup and, if there are any seams, make sure they’re behind the breast, not sitting on the breast as they’ll rub your scars.
The centre front should be as close as you can get it to the body. If it’s away from your chest it means the band is too big or the cups are too small.
Ideally, don’t wear an underwired bra for at least a year after reconstruction but, if you really want to, then choose a wide underwire, which is soft and bendy.
If you’re going to wear a prosthesis, you can get a pocketed bra, but you’re not restricted to them. Once you get used to it, you can use your prosthesis with a normal bra. Just make sure the bra fits really well, because you don’t want it falling out.