Beauty & Fashion

Meet Katy Marks, the architect creating asymmetric underwear & swimwear for women who have had a single mastectomy — That’s Not My Age

Meet Katy Marks, the architect creating asymmetric underwear & swimwear for women who have had a single mastectomy — That’s Not My Age

Katy Marks wearing UnoBra

 

Katy Marks is an incredible woman. The co-founder of London-based architecture practise Citizens Design Bureau and mother of two young sons, found that after her single mastectomy she just couldn’t get on with wearing a prosthetic. Rather than feeling like she had to hide her body away, Katy took on the challenge of creating an asymmetric bra together with the expertise of a number of  lingerie designers. ‘It was very important to me to set an example to my sons. I didn’t want them to see their mum being ashamed of her body,’ she says, ‘Instead I wanted them to see that difference is OK and can be beautiful.’ The result is unobra: a range of sustainable underwear and swimwear for women who have had unilateral mastectomies.

 

We caught up with Katy for a chat about the post-surgery bra business:

 

 

 

Please could you tell us a little about your background. I heard on Women’s Hour that you’re an architect by trade, how have you found shifting over to such a different design process?

I grew up in Liverpool and I still run my own architecture practice in London. Designing asymmetric bras has been incredibly challenging, but the process is actually quite similar to designing buildings in so many ways. Design is about problem-solving, collaboration, determination, a bit of jeopardy and risk… but it’s also about seeing a need, tapping into an idea that will touch people and impact peoples’ lives. I believe that great buildings and spaces can do that… but so can one-boob bras!

 

What issues did you find with the pre-existing post-surgery bras out there?

There are actually quite a lot of bras on the market for women who have had a single and double mastectomy but they are almost exclusively designed to make you look ’normal’ ie to hide the fact that you have had a breast removed and to pretend it is still there by using prosthetics. For some women that works really well, but for many other women prosthetics are uncomfortable. My feeling is that wearing prosthetics also makes it much harder to come to terms with your changed body after surgery. The prosthetic made me feel like having a mastectomy was something I should hide – as if it was something to be ashamed of.

A few years before I had my surgery, I had watched the London 2012 Paralympic games and I remember thinking how brilliant it was to see people running on ‘blades’. Yes they were a kind of prosthetic leg, but this was a design approach that was not about hiding the loss of a leg but was about celebrating what your body could do – regardless what had happened to it. I liked that ethos. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt very strongly that I had to learn to like what I was looking at… even though the scars look pretty gruesome. I also have kids – two boys. It was very important to me to set an example to them. I didn’t want them to see their mum being ashamed of her body. Instead I wanted them to see that difference is OK and can be beautiful.

 

 

 

And how did you find the process of making your designs a reality? What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?

There have been so many challenges, it’s difficult to know where to start! I’m a mum to two kids, I run a very very full-time architecture business and I was going through my own cancer and health issues. I call cancer my part-time job because the amount of time spent in hospital, on hold on the phone and doing health admin is huge. Just finding the time and energy to even think about setting up another business has been huge! It’s also money… designing bras is a feat of engineering and it is also insanely expensive. Designing for asymmetry is also an unusual thing to do, so there has been a lot of trial and error. From the outset, we also wanted our sizing to be inclusive, but that is a HUGE undertaking. 32-42 A-G is 54 sizes. And when you consider that each bra has to be made in a right and left cup, that is 108 bras just to make one bra style, in one colour! A-D cups have different needs from DD-F cups and FF-G cups are different again, so we’ve even ended up needing three sub-styles for each design to get the fit right.

 

What are the key features of the unobra that makes it functional and comfortable for everyday wear? 

The unusual thing about our bra is that it has only one cup and one strap. It is confidently asymmetric and there is no hiding away from it. The key for me was to choose fabric that is sustainable but also super soft and comfortable. The design has a flat band over the scar tissue – designed to give gentle compression – while the cup supports the breast. I wanted the fabrics to feel luxurious, sophisticated and elegant.

 

 

 

And tell us about unobra swimwear: were there any extra considerations?

Again, the bikinis are about being confident and carefree in our asymmetry. If you look at swimwear design nowadays, a lot of styles are asymmetric with one strap… I felt there was an opportunity to create a design that would look so intentional and confident in its asymmetry that people wouldn’t immediately see it and think, ‘oh that’s a woman who has had a mastectomy and only has one breast’… but instead would think, ‘wow that woman looks fabulous…and proud of her body’

 

What about any other research and development?

It’s really impossible to launch a product like this without testing it on a range of women of different sizes, ages and backgrounds. Many of the women have been going through active treatment, which has been challenging and sensitive for obvious reasons, but when we come together for photo shoots it has been nothing short of spectacular to see the empowering impact. I’ve literally seen women grow several inches taller and beam with confidence, not only confidence in how they look, but also sharing stories with other women so openly and with so much mutual support. It’s incredibly emotional and moving.I want women to feel proud of their bodies, happy to be alive and able to enjoy swimming, sunbathing, lounging in the garden on a sunny day. We’ve just gone through this horrible treatment and for many women it will be ongoing, the last thing they should be feeling is shame or embarrassment. We should be celebrating strength, acknowledging difference and empowering confidence.

 

 

Have you had lots of feedback since you launched unobra?

There have been many occasions when I have felt like giving up – because I really don’t have a lot of time and energy myself and it has cost so much money to develop this which is becoming a bit of a bone of contention in my family (We have a house that is full of boxes of bras, knickers, elastics and fabrics!). But the feedback I get from so many women is truly overwhelming, it keeps me going and even motivates my boys to join in packing envelopes sometimes.

Here are just a couple of many messages I have received:

“Dear Katy, I just wanted to thank you for my Unobra.  It’s so liberating. My surgery was a quarter of a century ago and this is honestly the first time since then that I’ve felt like “me” again.  I was worried I might feel self-conscious, but I don’t – just comfortable!  The fit and support are good and the fabric is both soft and glamorous.  I’m even looking forward to wearing vest tops when it warms up a bit.I’ll be keeping an eye out for any new designs you come up with, both for bras and bikinis. Meanwhile, congratulations on your fabulous venture – to go from identifying a need to where you are now is inspiring.  And, happy bra-making! Thank you, Helen”

“Hi Katy, Oh my gosh! It has arrived! It is so gorgeous! Thank you so much. I had my first chemo on Tuesday so was feeling rather rough and down in the dumps today, but this thing of beauty has made me so happy. I put it on and took some photos. Sorry I look a bit rough and still a bit bruised from the port insertion a few weeks back. However, I felt like a million dollars wearing it, which is a hell of an achievement right now! Thank you so much for pulling all the stops out to get the bra to me ahead of my birthday. I am so very grateful. All the very best, Karen”

 

 

 

 

What difference has wearing your designs had on your feelings about your own body?

Honestly, wearing my unobra and uno bikini is essential for me. I couldn’t carry on with the prosthetic. There were so many occasions when I would go shopping and crumple in a heap in tears in a changing room because I hated feeling like I couldn’t really be myself. My confidence didn’t grow not overnight, it took me time to get used it – especially in a professional environment – going to a work interview or something like that. But now I barely give it a second thought.

I genuinely think a lot of people don’t really notice even though I am an FF cup,  and even when they do notice (it’s obvious when you see people do a slight double take!) they soon put two and two together, realise what must have happened and then they just get on with it. Life is too short to worry about what other people might think. If I carry myself with confidence, I genuinely don’t think people look at me as ‘that one-boob woman’, but rather as ‘Katy: mum, architect and bra designer, who happened to have breast cancer’.

I don’t want to be defined by cancer, but I’m not going to be embarrassed by it either.

 

Unobra sustainable underwear and swimwear is available online HERE.

And there’s more in the pipeline… including a soft-cup sports bra, high waist brief, tankini and vest top.

Don’t miss our podcasts with Dr Liz O’Riordan and Debbie Bliss.

 

All imagery: Courtesy of UnoBra 

Photography by Tara Darby and Katja Meyer

Featuring models: Jenny Skinner, Rumbi Moyo, Gemma Fish and Katy Marks

Lingerie specialist consultants: Aimee McWilliams and Sarah Raskino

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