By Mutton Club staff.
Bringing inspiration, beauty and support after breast cancer.
At the Mutton Club we delight in profiling women doing interesting and often extraordinary things in midlife and beyond. A while ago we met Sue Pringle (above), who set up her own lingerie business, to create beautiful bras for women after breast cancer and a full or partial mastectomy. She was inspired to do this because she struggled so hard to find anything she could wear after her own breast cancer.
We asked Sue to tell us her story and how the millie bra came to life. Watch the video too!
Tell us about your personal experience with cancer, and how it inspired you to set up millie lingerie?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, and underwent three rounds of surgery, including a mastectomy and reconstruction, and five years of hormone therapy. Ten years later I had a recurrence on the same side, with the same cancer. I had another lumpectomy, which meant that my left breast was much smaller, battered, and uneven, and I now wear a breast prosthesis to even out my shape.
I found it almost impossible to find a bra that was not only comfortable, but that I actually liked. I was reduced to tears repeatedly in changing rooms, leaving feeling disheartened and grumpy. So I decided to turn a grump into a business, and do something about it, for myself, the 50,000 women who are newly diagnosed each year, and the half a million women who are living well after treatment.
We all deserve more, and I’m determined to see that we all get it – fabulous, comfortable bras to wear, that help to reduce some of the impacts of breast cancer treatment, and restore some self confidence.
What are some of the difficulties women who have overcome breast cancer face when trying to find new underwear?
We’ve identified that 99% of women have to replace their entire bra wardrobe after breast cancer surgery because of sensitive, painful scar tissue, and uneven breast shape. The impact of their treatment lasts for the rest of their lives, and many women find it too uncomfortable to go back to wearing ‘standard’ bras, because the materials rub and irritate sensitive skin.
A high proportion of women wear a breast prosthesis to even out their contour, so they also need a bra with a pocketed lining to hold their breast form securely in place. Other women prefer to remain flat, but even then, they often have uneven chest contours that feel sensitive, and they still need something to wear to help them feel secure.
Of the 120+ women we surveyed, a high proportion told us they are extremely dissatisfied with the choice of bras they have access to, describing them as old fashioned, ugly, and not anything like the bras they used to wear. One of the ladies I spoke to is 72, and she would still like to wear a pretty bra – age isn’t important, but the wish for something gorgeous and comfortable to wear is the same for all women.
Why is this range of lingerie important to women who have overcome cancer?
Women go through a challenging medical and psychological experience during breast cancer treatment, and they lose something they can never really quite get back. For many women, lingerie is an important expression of their femininity and helps with self confidence; we designed the millie bra to help give them a little bit back.
We understand the practical challenges women come up against when trying to find a bra wardrobe to get themselves dressed comfortably and stylishly each day, whether they are returning to work, going out with friends, getting dressed for a special occasion, or resuming exercise.
Our first bra is a stylish, feminine, soft cup, non-wired lace bra to give women a welcome confidence boost after the rigours of their treatment are over; we hope they will be able to look at themselves in the mirror and think, “I look like me again.” We’ll design bras to wear right after surgery as well, but we first wanted to show that it is entirely possible to feel comfortable and look gorgeous at the same time!
Are there other products like this on the market? If so, what sets millie’s lingerie apart from the crowd?
There are around 500 lingerie brands in the UK, but only a handful design specifically for women who’ve been through breast cancer treatment. Our starting point was a deep understanding of the ‘medical’ requirements of our wearers, then focusing on the woman herself, her wishes and hopes, and the things she thinks that she’s not entitled to any longer like pretty straps and lacy details.
Breast cancer is something that’s happened to us, it’s a part of us, not a definition, so we’re designing for women, not breast cancer patients.
Are you involved in the design of the underwear? If so, what’s the creative process like? Do you make the bras yourselves?
We’ve been working with designer, Laura Stanford, previously of M&S, Debehams, and Agent Provocateur, who says millie is the most challenging and inspiring design she’s ever created! Pattern and sample makers, Laura and Karen are both Nottinghamshire based, and were on board throughout 2016 refining and specifying our design to get it ready for production sampling.
The design process began as series of sketches I made, tracing out my ideas and aspirations for the first millie bra. I am not a designer as such, but I can easily articulate how I see something, and Laura my designer, took me through a creative process which culminated in the first bra we took into prototyping.
We’ve had a lot of fun, eaten lots of cake, and had a few tears; when I first revealed my scars to Laura and my garment technologist, that was a big day. When we chopped up the third sample to see how we could improve its shape, it made me both laugh and cry! We’ve yet to have a meeting when one of us isn’t air-drawing boobs, and we’ve had some interesting glances as we rifle though lace samples in coffee shops.
I’ve been involved in product design throughout my entire career, but this is by far the most complex and challenging thing that I’ve ever worked on, and the most satisfying, beyond a doubt. We’ve made all our prototype samples here in Nottinghamshire, and our production will be outside of the UK to give us the best possible quality and price.
Here’s the millie lingerie video to find out more about this fabulous project.