Designer Dana Donofree was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27, two days before her birthday and two months before her wedding. Ms. Donofree, who worked in product development for Kaufmanfranco and was the director of design and merchandising for children’s line Goldbug, quickly realized there were no chic, comfortable options available after surgery. The experience inspired her to create AnaOno, an intimates line for women who undergo reconstructive surgery after breast cancer.
AnaOno’s Mastectomy RecoveryWear line, launching this spring, is made up of comfortable and elegant loungewear. There are detachable pouches and belts on soft robes, casual slip dresses and trendy bralettes, which Ms. Donofree showed the Observer in a Flatiron showroom. The robe can be paid for by insurance because it has drain pouches, but after the recovery process, customers can remove them. All of the pieces were carefully constructed so they don’t rub against scars, but nothing looks like the typical white gowns found in hospitals. Instead, there are simple pieces women can feel confident wearing, whether it’s in their home, the hospital or while running errands. Most recently, the inspiring Ms. Donofree teamed up with radiation oncologist Dr. Katie Deming to launch the first intimates collection for women undergoing radiation treatment.
The brand’s tagline is “Never Alone,” and Ms. Donofree works tirelessly to make sure women truly feel that way when they connect with her brand. The Observer spoke to Ms. Donofree, a graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design, to find out how her experiences prepared her to build the community behind AnaOno.
Did you always want to start your own line? I had always dreamt of having my name on the wall and having my own line, I just was never really sure what my exact brand or product would be. Then cancer happened. I woke up in the middle of the night, wondering why I was constantly letting the aftermath of my treatment and breast reconstruction surgery run my life. My clothes didn’t fit, my underwear didn’t work and it was upsetting me. It was an every day, all-day barrage of stress about how I looked and what I wore.
How did your experience in fashion prepare you for AnaOno? I thought about my age and my experience as a fashion designer and knew I was indeed crazy enough to do something about it and design my own lingerie that would fit. I’m always grateful that my career was so vast, from assisting a start-up fashion line in New York City to a running a mass market account in Denver, all of which prepared me for everything from pattern-making to sourcing to production and distribution. I already had the experience and expertise under my belt, I just needed the courage.
When did you realize that traditional lingerie no longer fit? Immediately. The mastectomy and reconstruction surgical process, and especially the expander phase, leaves your breasts completely misshaped. The expanders are meant to do a job, not look good. Once I was given the all clear from my physician, I rushed right to my underwear drawer. I couldn’t wait to put on the beautiful bras I hadn’t worn for nearly a year or try on all of the amazing gifts I got at my bridal shower that had to wait, because we needed to postpone my wedding to get treatment started. Everything I tried to squeeze myself into was either painful or unflattering or just down right did not fit. It was devastating.
Walk us through the process of creating your own lingerie line. I am very fortunate to have a career full of experience in technical fit and construction. I really knew how to pick apart the components and shapes of traditional lingerie, shake them up and reform and refit them.
Has it been difficult educating people about reconstruction surgery? I wasn’t prepared for the lack of knowledge on what breast reconstruction entails and how much educating I had to do with the general public. When you are living with the reconstructed body every day and researching everything possible, it all becomes a part of your vocabulary and creates this tunnel-vision. I have really been surprised that most people truly have no idea what it means to get a mastectomy and breast reconstruction, and what goes into the surgical and healing process and what survivorship looks like afterwards. Not only have I had to tell people I am launching a lingerie line that women need post-surgery, I am explaining to them exactly what the surgery is and why its needed. It’s been a big task for a small company.
Have you met women who unexpectedly discovered the line benefited them? Recently a woman commented on how my bras would help those with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, and another one emailed to tell me her story about how a condition called pectus excavatum, a congenital disorder that results in a concave chest, has really left her with significant challenges trying to fit into traditional bras. Even more surprisingly, several others have emailed me about getting our Sandi front closure bra for their mothers after open heart surgery.
Do you have any favorite customer stories? My most inspirational customer is a beautiful young woman named Alyssa from Montreal. I had the pleasure of meeting her at a Jill’s Wish event, a nonprofit I have partnered with and supported since AnaOno launched. Alyssa spreads her message of being strong and feeling beautiful in spite of having cerebral palsy and the limitations the disease has had on her mobility, oftentimes confining her to a wheelchair. After just completely falling in love with her beautiful heart and soul, I gifted her the Jill bra, which was named in honor of Jill, who was the original AnaOno muse and sadly lost her life to breast cancer in early February 2016. And to this day two years later, I still get notes from Alyssa telling me how proud she is to be wearing such a beautiful bra, that reminds her not only of her friend, but of her beauty. Knowing I could make just this small difference in her life makes me so incredibly proud and grateful.
What do you see in the future for AnaOno? I have dreams of being able to build out this community, and make it a safe haven for women to really open up about body image issues and self-confidence, as well as sexuality and intimacy, as it is a largely-affected piece of a woman’s life after cancer, and we aren’t talking about it enough. We believe in sharing their stories and their journeys in our blog series, as you never know whose life you can affect if by sharing another’s challenges during treatment and survivorship.
How do you find your models? We launched our first website with young survivors I met through the Young Survival Coalition modeling our collection. That was my community and my support line, and so many of them were involved in the entire process of developing the new styles, from fit sessions, to wine parties to even more fit sessions. When they reach out to us, we ask if they’d ever be interested in modeling for us.
How do people become involved in your brand ambassador program? Our sisterhood is tight knit, and extremely supportive. I’ve always planned on that being the DNA of AnaOno. It is important these women never feel alone during any part of their journey, especially after treatment and life after cancer begins or life with cancer as a chronic, terminal illness continues. It is why our slogan is Never Alone. It lets everyone know that someone, either on the other side of that package or social media platform or email communication, is always thinking of them and doing everything she can to make sure they feel beautiful and supported.