Overcoming adversity – how Valiant Lingerie transformed post-surgery underwear

Eleanor Howie is on a mission with start-up Valiant Lingerie: to create age-appropriate, stylish and functional post-surgery underwear.

“Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women worldwide,” reveals Valiant Lingerie founder Eleanor Howie. “There were over two million new diagnoses worldwide in 2018. Sadly, it’s a huge global market.”

It’s also been a chance for Eleanor to make a positive contribution to the plight of millions of women diagnosed with breast cancer and tackle head-on the challenge women face buying post-operative underwear. Frustrated at the negative impact on self-esteem posed by existing post-surgery underwear, she founded Valiant Lingerie in 2020 – a start-up dedicated to creating age-appropriate, stylish and functional post-operative underwear.

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From frustration to founder

Valiant Lingerie began life as a result of Eleanor’s own post-surgery frustrations.

After her mother received two diagnoses for breast cancer in her early 30s, and her aunt passed away from the disease around the same age, Eleanor and her sister underwent genetic testing. They discovered that they both had increased chances of developing breast cancer.

At age 24, then working as a paralegal, Eleanor underwent a preventative double mastectomy.

After watching her mother go through recovery and seeing the unappealing range of post-operation underwear available and its negative effect on her mother’s self-esteem, Eleanor believed that things would be different years later. To her dismay, post-operative underwear seemed like it was still stuck in the Dark Ages.

“I felt like I’d gone from being a 24-year-old woman where, most of the time, I knew I could go out and find something that would fit me. Post-surgery, everything had changed, and the only things that I found that provided the functionality I needed for my new body looked age-inappropriate. People described them to me as ‘Nana bras’!”

This was when Valiant Lingerie opens in new window was born.

On a mission to tackle exclusion

“I realised that I wasn’t the only person experiencing this,” she says. “I had conversations with other people; friends who’d had surgery, then their friends and it kept rippling out. I realised that there was a group of people who felt like me – that we weren’t represented and were being excluded by the mainstream industry.”

But there’s a big difference between having an idea and starting your own business.

“The thing that finally pushed me over the edge was when I got married in 2019. I was getting ready, trying to find something to wear under my wedding dress. I couldn’t find any underwear that didn’t look like a medical truss. That was the final straw. I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to do something about this.'”

Launching a business in lockdown

The hard work officially began in January 2020, just before the introduction of Covid-19 restrictions in the UK.

“It was literally a matter of weeks before we went into the first lockdown,” reveals Eleanor. So, what kind of challenges did Valiant face?

“The biggest issues we had were practical ones,” she explains. “One early hurdle was getting hold of materials to do prototypes because I wanted to use two materials that had sustainable credentials. I’m conscious of the impact of the fashion industry and how we need to be working towards a circular economy.

It’s something that I feel really strongly about. It’s going to become more important in terms of operating as a business, and more important to consumers as well. There were difficulties because the warehouses and the suppliers were closed, which slowed us down.

“Inclusivity and the importance of seeing different people represented is so important too. One thing that I still want to do is have empowering photoshoots with lots of different people from different walks of life, sharing stories and experiences. We tried, but the pandemic curtailed it. I held a photoshoot between lockdowns, but it was much smaller than I envisaged.”

Transferring skills into a start-up

Eleanor has a large skillset gained from starting her career in law – and it’s one that’s been surprisingly transferrable in helping her become an underwear entrepreneur.

“From a legal background, I enjoy research,” she explains. “I enjoy getting into things and trying to understand them as deeply as I can. This can be a double-edged sword.

I did a lot of research about how the lingerie industry works and how garments are made and fed it all into my business plan, where I was able to draw upon previous skills for drafting complex documents. But the double-edged sword part of it is that it can be tempting to hide behind that research and think you need to keep going and find more information.

“When I was a litigation lawyer, I ran court cases, and essentially what you’re doing there is project management. You’re managing something through a sequence of steps in order to get to a certain outcome. Skills like this, where you’re spinning several plates at once, are always beneficial when you’re starting up a business.”

The bridge between personal and professional

During the pandemic, some workers may have found themselves struggling to separate life and work. For Eleanor, her start-up is rooted in personal need – and surely that’s harder to separate from?

“Because I’m closely linked to the company, it does have an impact,” she says. “I sometimes struggle to pin things down and have that balance. It’s something that I think I need to work on. I suspect it’s something that a lot of people have struggled with lately, having that division while we’ve been in and out of lockdowns. I have a home office, so my work is always here.”

Overcoming inexperience when starting up

With no previous experience starting up a business, Eleanor didn’t hesitate to reach out for advice from a number of sources: “I was really lucky. Quite early on, I found the person that ultimately I ended up working with because she owns a company that does pattern development, and she has been in the lingerie industry for over ten years.

“With Start Up Loans, as part of their offering, they hold training events with experts for all the different subjects, from branding to legal basics, and everything in between. I attended a lot of those, so I was quite structured in my approach to accessing chances to learn more, because I was quite conscious that there’s always going to be gaps. You can’t possibly know everything. So I’m always trying to seek out ways to get more information.”

A valiant future

What’s next for Valiant Lingerie?

“I’m currently designing a new range of swimwear,” says Eleanor. “I do a lot of ongoing market research, and one of the areas that kept coming up was that women were also experiencing a problem with finding age-appropriate, empowering, post-surgery swimwear. That range will hopefully be launching in the spring, ready for the summer holidays.”

But it won’t stop there, she says: “I’ve also had interest from other areas and different markets, like the US and Australia. The five-year plan definitely involves a degree of international expansion.”

What advice can she offer those at the beginning of their business journeys? Eleanor says: “I think it is really important that you do your research, and start making your business plan. You’ll probably find that it ends up being a working document and that it’s not going to be perfect. That’s fine. Ultimately, I think my advice is to go and put yourself out there and start. Trust yourself. Give yourself the chance to succeed.”

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