Before she became a fashion designer, Dr. Katie Deming considered herself a spy.
As a radiation oncologist, her patients dealt with sensitive skin on their chest from the radiation therapy they were undergoing. She had been taught to simply tell them to go bra-less and wear a cotton t-shirt.
“And then I started my practice and told a few patients to go bra-less during radiation. They looked at me like, ‘Are you kidding? I’m supposed to go to work and not wear a bra?’ And I realized that this is obviously not good advice. I think this is one of the deficits in medicine. That we’re not taught some of the complementary aspects that could make our patients’ lives better during treatment,” Dr. Deming says.
So she did some “undercover detective work” for her patients at a retail store that sold post-surgical bras for women with breast cancer.
“I really just wanted to know what bras were available for my patients,” Dr. Deming says. She went in and told the saleswoman that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was planning to have a lumpectomy and radiation. She asked the woman what bras would work for her upcoming treatments. She wanted to see what the experience was like for her patients. What she discovered was upsetting.
“To start with, I was walked past all of the beautiful bras in the lingerie section of the store and taken to a dressing room in the back. Then the woman brought in these bags of very medically-branded bras that were nothing I would ever pick out for myself,” Dr. Deming remembers. “The worst part was that the bras were all wrong for my patients. They were made with fabrics, trims and construction that would irritate my patients’ sensitive skin. I left the store feeling terrible. I couldn’t believe that I had sent my patients to have this experience and pay for bras that were ultimately a waste of their money.
That’s when Dr. Deming decided she was going to try some DIY solutions.
“I spent time talking to every patient — what feels good for you, what’s working, what doesn’t work? And I found tips and tricks that I can tell my patients,” she says. These tricks included putting a piece of cotton inside the bra so the seams would not touch the skin, putting a t-shirt under the bra, turning a camisole with a shelf bra inside out, panty liners on the skin under the arms — “You name it, we did it.”
She was optimistic when the same retail store she had visited years before came to her clinic and said they wanted to show the newest merchandise they had for women with breast cancer. Dr. Deming thought, “Oh thank goodness, someone’s figured this out.” The store came and showed the doctors the same bras in the same packaging that Dr. Deming had been given during her undercover mission.
She told the retailers that these bras worked for women who had mastectomies, but most women in her clinic had lumpectomies and were all having radiation. She wanted to know what they were recommending for women receiving radiation. The representatives from the store admitted that they didn’t know what women needed during radiation and asked Dr. Deming what she recommended. After hearing Dr. Deming’s list of design features, they stated that there wasn’t anything on the market like it. They asked if they could pass the recommendations on to one of the large mastectomy bra manufacturers. At first, Dr. Deming considered helping one of the companies, then she decided to try to solve the problem herself.
“I wasn’t happy with how these large companies were designing products that looked medical. They were not designed to make someone feel beautiful,” Dr. Deming says. “And so for me it was really important that we not only design bras that were super comfortable and met the functional needs of women receiving radiation, but that the designs also made women feel beautiful. I wanted the designs to be something that I would want to walk into a boutique and buy myself.”
Rather than launching something quickly, Dr. Deming took her time perfecting the designs. She spent 6 years prototyping, wear testing and patenting her designs. Two years ago, she launched MAKEMERRY, the first line of intimates for women undergoing radiation therapy.
“It took me much longer than expected because I’m a doctor, not a designer. And I was doing this project while practicing medicine full time and and raising three small children. This really started as a hobby to solve a problem for my patients,” explains Dr. Deming. And while she’s made the intimates line successful, she’s fought her share of naysayers.
“I’ve had so many people tell me that I couldn’t do what I’ve done, that a doctor can’t start an apparel line. I think that it makes people nervous,” Dr. Deming says. “They think, ‘Well I don’t see any other examples of someone doing this.’ And they try to be well-meaning by telling me I shouldn’t do it. But if I had listened to everybody along the way, I would have stopped a thousand times.”
Dr. Deming says the criticism hasn’t stopped just because she’s gotten to production and sales of her products.
“Last fall, I was at a dinner party, and someone I didn’t know asked me what I do for a living. I said, ‘I’m a doctor but I also work in fashion.’ And before I had a chance to finish that sentence, someone else jumped in and said, ‘Well I don’t know if I’d call designing bras for women with breast cancer fashion,’” Dr. Deming remembers. “And that was really just not helpful. But it was one of those things where I thought, ‘Whoa, why would someone say that?’ Designing for anyone can be fashion, designs don’t have to be for celebrities or people in fashion magazines in order to be considered fashion.”
Dr. Deming’s sentiment was validated in February 2018 when MAKEMERRY was featured in New York Fashion Week.
“I think that it is important to feel well during cancer treatment and having something fashionable and beautiful to wear is empowering. Cancer doesn’t define you. I believe there is a crossover between fashion and medicine. Feeling good in your clothes is important, especially when dealing with an illness that may affect your body image,” Dr. Deming says. “When you look good, you feel good.”