WASHINGTON — Many thoughts flash through a woman's mind on the eve of a double mastectomy — most prominently fears about her mortality. But in the thicket of complicated emotions that crowded Laurel Kamen's brain as she sat in her Kalorama apartment contemplating her diagnosis of breast cancer, she also had to reckon with fretfulness about her future wardrobe.
A woman of accomplishment and intelligence, who is neither shallow nor narcissistic, Kamen had none of the tortured ambivalence about fashion and style that haunts so many women of her stature. Kamen, a Chicago native and a former executive at American Express who had spent a chunk of her formative years in New York, considered fashion an expression of confidence and control. Put simply, she liked looking good and she wanted to continue looking good after both of her breasts were removed and she adjusted to the contours of a torso not reconstructed with either silicone or saline.
In preparation for her surgery, Kamen had been prowling the Internet on a pre-shopping spree, searching for clothes that would flatter what would soon be her new shape but that would also be comfortable and practical enough to wear while she was recuperating. She didn't find any clothes that met her criteria — sophisticated, grown-up — and out of her frustration came a business plan. She decided to create a line of clothing for women who have had breast cancer. The collection would see them through their recuperation after a mastectomy. And it would flatter their post-operative figures — whether they chose reconstructive surgery, prosthetics or nothing.
Sadly, this is no small market. According to the American Cancer Society, there will be 232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed in women this year. But Kamen's research turned up few good, accessible fashion options for them — or her.
"I knew I'd look different. I knew I'd have a long recovery," says Kamen, who is married to Washington Post writer Al Kamen. "There were fleeces and T-shirts and goopy-looking shirts. But I didn't want to leave the world of fashion."
Kamen's first call — filled with indignation and determination — was to Christine Irvin, who has been her friend for 30 years. Their meeting was a New York cliche. They bonded on the No. 1 subway train en route from Lower Manhattan to Penn Station and, ultimately, shared a summer house in the Hamptons. Irvin's phone rang around 5:30 in the evening as she was headed to the Museum of Modern Art.
"I have this great idea for a business," Kamen said.
"I'm in," Irvin said.
In hindsight, Irvin says with a laugh: "Am I really going to turn down my best friend the night before she has a mastectomy? She could have been planning to start a car wash."
Approximately 15 months after Kamen's surgery — after many thousands of dollars invested, many cold calls in search of advice, many fit dilemmas solved — the Alloro fashion line will debut Wednesday on Capitol Hill. It will have a New York trunk show soon after. It's the product of three friends and their unlikely personalities: Kamen, a Washingtonian with a devotion to fashion; Irvin, a Wall Street fixer and organizer with a creative streak; and Roedean Landeaux, a New York designer without fealty to seasonal trends.
Alloro (Italian for laurel) is not stuffed with frocks in breast-cancer-awareness pink. But the privately funded company will give 25 percent of its sales to breast cancer research. The line is not matronly, but it doesn't fall prey to disposable fads. It is not medicinal, but it makes allowances for all of the ways in which modern science damages the body in its attempts to fix it.
"The pretty part was our first jumping-off point," says Landeaux, who is Kamen's cousin. "There are no hidden prosthetics things. It's fashion." Indeed, several of the pieces — an open-knit sweater and a pair of leopard-print trousers — are reminiscent of looks from Landeaux's signature collection, which she sells through her Greenwich Village boutique.
Silk charmeuse camisoles in shades of violet and sea foam, priced at $125, float away from the body on superfine straps. Necklines drape into a not-too-low-cut cowl that is engineered not to slip off the shoulders and reveal the close-set straps of a prosthetic bra. Blouses are stitched with curved seams so that a woman who did not opt for breast reconstruction can go without prosthetics and not feel that her silhouette is concave. And a $250 cherry-red bolero has small interior pockets to hold drainage paraphernalia during the early days of recovery.
Kamen came up with a list of 20 bullet points — post-surgical issues — that the collection would address, from a limited range of motion and prohibitions on carrying anything weighing more than 10 pounds to fingertips numbed by chemotherapy. So, for example, a mesh handbag weighs, as Landeaux says, less than a bottle of perfume, and a linen blouse employs black lacquered snaps instead of buttons.
"I think we've done some great things that address all the criteria for these women — physically and psychologically," Landeaux says.
When Kamen showed the collection to Neiman Marcus — more for feedback than to solicit sales, as the clothes are sold through trunk shows now — Martha Slagle, the general manager of the Mazza Gallerie store, was impressed enough to host a luncheon for Alloro's founders along with, as they say in the land of policy and wonkery, stakeholders.
"We're very conscious that a lot of our customers have gone through breast cancer," Slagle says. The luncheon celebrating Alloro "was to raise awareness that people out there are doing this."
"We see it as community service," Slagle says.
Everyone should be able to participate in the fashion circus — breast cancer survivors, too. "It's for them," Kamen says. "It's to make them feel a little joy."
<Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun