Thursday 22 February 2018

Shaping the future for breast cancer survivors

Why we should be singing the praises of Theya Lingerie

CREATIVE AROUND CANCER: Ciara Donlon, CEO and founder of Theya Lingerie, is now developing a range of swimwear. Photo: Tony Gavin
CREATIVE AROUND CANCER: Ciara Donlon, CEO and founder of Theya Lingerie, is now developing a range of swimwear. Photo: Tony Gavin
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

When Ciara Donlon's grandmother, Rose, had a double mastectomy back in the 1970s, you simply could not buy bras in Ireland designed for women who had this surgery. Breast cancer wasn't even talked about much at the time.

"My granny, who was a businesswoman, lied to some people about the mastectomy," says Ms Donlon. "She said she had cysts.

"It's since talking to my aunt that I found out that you couldn't even buy special bras in Ireland for women who had breast surgery back then. Now the underwear is much more mainstream."

Little did Granny Rose know back in the 1970s that within 40 years, her grand-daughter Ciara would set up a company which would design lingerie tailored to the needs of women who have had breast surgery and radiotherapy.

Ms Donlon set up Theya Lingerie - a name she chose to convey feminine strength - in July 2013. "My company's logo is a rose - after my granny," says Ms Donlon. "I chose the word 'Theya' because it means goddess. The entire brand is based around feminine strength."

As well as being inspired by her grandmother's experience, Ms Donlon's experience running her own lingerie shop in Ranelagh in 2010 spurred her to set up Theya Lingerie.

"I had worked in marketing for about 10 years across various companies. Around 2009, I left a marketing job in Vodafone. Shortly after that, I opened my own lingerie shop called Cup Cakes. The shop specialised in maternity underwear and bra cup sizes you couldn't get on the main street.

"A lot of women came into Cup Cakes who had had breast surgery. They were looking for mastectomy lingerie, but the only thing I could find at the time was very functional-looking lingerie. Based on that, my accountant suggested I apply to Enterprise Ireland for a grant - with the view of designing lingerie for survivors of breast cancer. So I got the grant and went off and did my research."

Ms Donlon organised a number of focus groups with breast cancer survivors to understand exactly what they were looking for in lingerie. She quickly confirmed what she suspected already - that there was a gap in the market for someone to provide comfortable and attractive lingerie for women who had undergone the surgery.

"When women have this surgery, they lose a lot of their femininity," she says. "They've lost one or two breasts, their hair, and so on - and then the bras they're given after the surgery wouldn't be the most feminine.

"Traditionally, mastectomy lingerie would have been very high-cut, very plain - and designed from a medical point of view, not an aesthetic one. Lingerie like that was adding to the problem for these women, as opposed to helping them."

Along with company director, Kelly Lakin, who has about 20 years experience as a lingerie designer, Theya designed a range of underwear based on the feedback it received from talking to women in those focus groups.

"We've made our bras front-adjustable, totally seam-free and pretty," said Ms Donlon. "There are no labels on the bras to irritate the skin. This is important because after breast surgery, most women have to go through radiotherapy - so their skin is burnt, they'll be sweating a lot and they'll be in pain.

"All of our lingerie is wire-free - a lot of women don't like the feel of wire around them once they've had breast surgery. Many women never go back to mainstream lingerie after a mastectomy."

The main material used by Theya when making its bras, bamboo, was chosen for good reason.

"Bamboo is thermally regulating so if you go through radiotherapy, it cools the skin down," said Ms Donlon.

"It's also anti-bacterial and four times more absorbent than cotton so it draws the sweat."

Although Theya's competitors, which are mainly German, are much bigger companies, Ms Donlon doesn't view them as a threat. "Their biggest models are bras which will hold up a prosthesis," said Ms Donlon. "We're coming at it from a completely different perspective."

Theya Lingerie is based in UCD's innovation centre, Nova. It is participating in a clinical study with women who have had breast cancer to see whether they feel better when they wear the company's lingerie. This study is been run in conjunction with UCD, ARCH, the Beacon Hospital and St James' Hospital

It's very much early days for the company. However, although it only started to trade last February, Theya's lingerie range is already for sale in Arnotts as well as a number of other independent stores across Ireland. Ms Donlon, a 38-year-old married mother-of-one, has high ambitions for the company.

"Our business model is export-driven," said Ms Donlon. "Ireland is a small market. We are in talks with distributors for Europe at the moment - and we're in talks with some department stores in the United States and Canada."

The company is also developing a range of nightwear and swim-wear for women who have been through breast surgery. It is also planning to develop a sports bra and a range of sports and leisure-wear.

"Our swimwear will offer a choice of prettier options - lower necklines and the appearance of cleavage.

"If a lady wants it, her nightwear will make her look like she has a chest. It'll make women feel prettier and more comfortable."

"I want Theya to be a brand which gives women in this area what they need," said Ms Donlon. "We want to be an all-around one-stop shop for these women."

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