Although more women are surviving breast cancer, the number of women being diagnosed with the disease has been on the rise for several years, according to Cancer Research UK.
Sadly, with more demand for post-surgery garments, this is a growing sector of the lingerie industry and more needs to be done to provide customers with choice and the best possible fitting experience. Here, mastectomy lingerie experts explain how they are working with hospitals and retailers to provide women with the support they need immediately after surgery and beyond. Nicola Dames, a designer specialising in ostomy-friendly underwear and swimwear, also talks about the negative connotations that surround men and women with a stoma.
On the panel…
Rhoda White, marketing manager, Amoena UK
Jemma Barnes, managing director, Anita Care
Tom Kavanagh, UK sales manager, Naturana
Lorna Murchie, managing director, Lorna Drew
Melissa Reeve, operations manager, Nicola Jane
Sarah Gilbert, commercial manager, Royce
Nicola Dames, CEO, Vanilla Blush
How has post surgery lingerie and swimwear evolved over the last couple of seasons in terms of new innovations, shapes and styles?
Melissa Reeve: Over the last couple of seasons, Nicola Jane has seen an increasing interest in swimwear designs that can be adapted to suit needs post-surgery, as well as personal style. New additions to the Nicola Jane collection have reflected the increasing demand for versatile swimwear. Our SS16 collection will include a brand new design and style: a ruched skirted swimsuit. Another style, which has evolved over the last few seasons, is a swimsuit with the mesh neckline. This on-trend design is very popular amongst ladies post-surgery, as the semi-sheer mesh neckline helps to create the illusion of a lower neckline, without compromising coverage.
Lorna Murchie: As with all smaller lingerie sectors, competition brings with it an urgency and determination to bring the customer the very best in terms of style, quality and choice. In the last few seasons we have seen more mastectomy fashion garments and more sports and swim styles than ever before. Mastectomy has become a much more interesting and diverse market than it was five years ago, and it shows no sign of slowing down.
Jemma Barnes: [Breast cancer] diagnosis is occurring in younger women far more frequently and, as such, there is demand for the styling to reflect their needs, so prettier designs with more colourways. Also, in reflection to the rest of the industry, the need for bigger cup sizes in mastectomy lingerie is growing.
Are consumers aware of the variety of product available on the market and what bras/briefs to buy during the different stages of treatment?
Rhoda White: I do think women are confused about where to look for post-surgery options. Many buy their lingerie on the high street, and for a long time high street stores did not believe there was a sufficiently large market to justify them stocking mastectomy styles. That has all changed over the past few years, and we are working with stores like Debenhams, as well as online specialists like Figleaves, to help bring our post-surgery styles into the mainstream. We need to be in the right place at the right time, and that’s where working with retailers is key. We also work with breast care nurses so that they know the right products to recommend for the days and weeks following surgery.
Tom Kavanagh: It depends on the support team surrounding the consumer, and whether they are familiar with the range of styles that are available. It also depends on whether their usual lingerie stockist can provide the information, time and care to help and advise them on what suits them best.
Sarah Gilbert: We don’t think customers are always aware of what their best options are. We try to educate all our stockists on the different bras for the different stages of surgery so they can advise their customers. Breast care nurses are the ones that we need to educate so they fully understand all the options and can advise their patients as early as possible.
Nicola Dames: I would have to say a lot of the time it is a case of “no”. There are a number of reasons for this. For instance, it is not unusual for an element of self-denial to play a part, especially pre-operation. This may result in a person not wanting to read about the physical requirements which will be required once they wake up from their operation. Secondly, as a former professional nurse, I am proud of the ethos of the NHS. But keep in mind our valued NHS works on the sense of service, and therefore the consumer aspect can fall below the radar. Thirdly, post-surgery underwear and swimwear is a very particular market, so it is easier to go mainstream with your products and market. With this in mind, it is therefore easy for the specialised post-surgery brands and products to be washed over by the huge tidal wave of mass underwear and swimwear marketing.
What post surgery styles do you offer and what are their functions?
Rhoda White: Our range starts with soft, front-fastening bras for optimum comfort during the immediate post-surgery period. Then, once women start looking for fashion styles, we have a wide choice of everyday bras with matching briefs – in both non-wired and underwired styles – plus beautiful lacy sets and Seduction styles – the first decidedly sexy post-surgery range to be launched in the post-surgery segment. We also have sports bras for optimum support and comfort during workouts. One serious game-changer was our strappy vest top, which we introduced in 2005 and which remains a best-seller. With built-in pocketed support, it allows women the freedom of going bra-less in the summer (which used to be impossible once you had to wear a breast form).
Jemma Barnes: We offer every product needed for every step of the recovery process, so ladies would start with a product that surgeons would use on the operating table and move on to wear bras to accommodate temporary soft forms and accelerate healing. Then, we offer a full wardrobe to accommodate consumers’ needs eight weeks after surgery. Styles include pocketed T-shirt bras, sports bras, camisole bras, post-radiotherapy bras and pretty bras. In addition, we offer breast forms for every stage and need, starting with softies and moving onto full silicones. We also offer partial forms for lumpectomy patients, as well as swimsuits, bikinis, tankinis and swim forms.
Tom Kavanagh: Naturana has an established reputation for providing women with affordable, everyday lingerie for every stage of their lives, which is why we created a seam-free mastectomy bra, which can be worn underneath every type of clothing. We have also just launched our first fashion-focussed mastectomy swimsuit.
Sarah Gilbert: Our Caress collection of mastectomy bras includes a style to suit every woman. Styles range from everyday to luxury and the collection includes padded and non-padded designs in a range of different shapes and designs. All Royce bras are non-wired and every bra in the Caress range has bilateral pockets to hold a prosthesis if required. The collection is also perfect for women who have had breast surgery of any kind.
Lorna Murchie: At Lorna Drew we offer affordable luxury in all our mastectomy collections. Styles are beautiful and are made using the very best quality fabrics with a snug and secure fit.
Melissa Reeve: The Nicola Jane collection offers a wide variety of styles to meet the necessary requirements post-surgery. All bras in the range feature higher centre-fronts and underarms to help cover any scarring or indentation, as well as pockets to hold prostheses. More specialised designs, including camisole bras, help provide additional coverage, whilst moulded, padded bras help to disguise any difference between a prosthesis and a natural breast. Nicola Jane bras can be worn by ladies who have had various surgery types after breast cancer, including a single or bilateral mastectomy, lumpectomy, partial mastectomy or reconstruction.
Nicola Dames: We design underwear that is inclusive of people with an ostomy. The underwear and swimwear essentially offers the double-whammy of extra physical support for the stoma, as well as offering extra gorgeous, fantastic fashion. We also have a few other proverbial irons in the fire, but when they are ready to be revealed to the fashion world we will make sure Lingerie Insight is the first to know.
Are enough retailers aware of the variety of post-surgery styles available on the market? And do they have the knowledge to help consumers find what they are looking for?
Rhoda White: I think things are changing, and more and more retailers are becoming aware of the products on the market. The trade media has helped enormously, by its willingness to include more features like this, which talk openly about mastectomy-wear. It’s crucial to highlight the importance of the segment because breast cancer affects so many women. And while it is a niche market, with more than 130 women being diagnosed in the UK every day, a growing proportion of retailers’ customers will have had breast cancer surgery, and their needs shouldn’t be ignored. We have 40 years of expertise that we’re happy to share with retailers who want to stock our range, and to help retailers provide the best possible service to breast-operated women, we have a fitting academy that offers them training.
Sarah Gilbert: More and more retailers are becoming aware of the variety of products available. We run our own specialist mastectomy fitting schools for our independent stores twice a year and we work in partnership with some of our larger retailers to run internal mastectomy fitting schools for their staff.
Lorna Murchie: Sadly, this is a problem. Due to the sensitivity needed in this market and a good understanding of both the treatments of breast cancer and product knowledge required to fit mastectomy lingerie, a lot of retailers are reluctant to sell mastectomy lingerie. While I understand their concerns, my experience is that selling mastectomy lingerie is very rewarding, and once a customer has found a brand they like, they stick with it and make repeat orders.
Nicola Dames: There’s probably still a long way to go before all our retailers are aware of the diversity required in underwear and swimwear. It is fair to say that, for some, there is still a blind stigma and taboo about post-surgery underwear and swimwear, which results in some retailers ignoring this widespread reality.
How have fabrics and technologies in the post-surgery underwear and swimwear market evolved over the last few seasons?
Jemma Barnes: Things evolve all the time as we learn more about breathability and perspiration control – both important factors due to the effects of drugs such a tamoxifen. We are also aware of the need for a balance of controlled compression and softness against the skin. Balancing these two elements can be a challenge and so we constantly look for new innovations to achieve the highest levels of practicality and comfort.
Tom Kavanagh: The use of innovative fibres, such as Invista’s Lycra Beauty fibre, have definitely had an effect on fabrics in terms of comfort, shape, support and
Nicola Dames: I can only comment here on my own ostomy designs. I love nothing more than pushing the boat out when it comes to keeping my designs current – we play around a lot with fabrics as our garments have to be made in a specific way. Technologies and fabrics are really being challenged within manufacturing.
Sarah Gilbert: We use silver technology in our Silver Post Surgery Bra (style 1008) as it has anti-bacterial, anti-odour and thermal regulating properties which are really helpful in the early stages of recovery when ladies will be very swollen and sore. We still find that 100% Pima cotton is the best for pockets and linings as it is soft to the skin and customers understand it, along with super soft elastics, straps and hooks and eyes.
What fabric and product innovations can we expect from future seasons?
Melissa Reeve: At Nicola Jane we have recently introduced one of our best-selling padded styles in a modal material. Modal is a soft, natural, breathable fabric and a longer-lasting, hard-wearing alternative to cotton. It is likely that future collections will see the introduction of styles which include more materials that offer the same benefits as common traditional materials, but are more advanced and longer-lasting.
Rhoda White: We’ll be continuing to bring out extensions to our ranges, like our strapless bras (they said it couldn’t be done for women who had to wear a breast form, but we did it). We’re always looking for new ways to incorporate technology into our products too – we recently introduced an ingenious 3D-cup bra, which gives women the shape and support of underwires, but without the wires.
Where do you see the future of the market heading?
Jemma Barnes: More work needs to be done with post surgery products that encourage faster healing after reconstruction surgery. Also, we predict an increase in sales of products such as the ReBelt Panty, which aids in the healing of the stomach, where tissue is taken for the creation of a reconstructed breast.
Rhoda White: We are hoping that mastectomy lingerie will become more mainstream and more accessible to women because until there is a cure for breast cancer, women will need this kind of lingerie, and they deserve to have all the variety and opportunities to buy the kind of styles they had before surgery.
Tom Kavanagh: As the treatment of breast cancer evolves, and a diagnosis does not necessarily mean radical surgery, mastectomy styles will develop to cater for different women’s requirements, as opposed to the current tendency to group them together as one.
Nicola Dames: I learnt a few years ago not to attach myself to ideas and future projections, as so often one is caught out by events. However, wherever the market does end up, I am determined to make sure that Vanilla Blush is involved all the way.
Sarah Gilbert: Sadly, with more demand for post surgery garments, this is a growing area and there is still a lot to be done to give the customer plenty of choice and the best possible experience. This is why we are continuing to broaden our mastectomy bra range; introducing more styles each year to meet customer demands. We have some really lovely new styles launching this month and will continue to run our bra fitting courses to provide bra fitters with the knowledge and confidence to fit ladies who have undergone all types of breast surgery.
Lorna Murchie: I expect to see more stockists offering a mastectomy option. I also predict that more fashion styles with better competitive pricing and lighter prosthetic options will enter the market.
Melissa Reeve: In the future,we see the market providing more and more styles which are not only based on the practically of a post-surgery styles, but will follow seasonal trends in terms of shapes and colours. Nowadays, post-surgery options do not have to look like a post-surgery style.