On Fashion: Katy Marks


On Fashion: Katy Marks

Architect Katy Marks tells us how she came to design her lingerie brand unobra

Words by Liz Skone James

When architect Katy was diagnosed with breast cancer, it set her along a path she never dreamed she would follow, and her lingerie brand, unobra, was born

Katy’s own experiences led to her wanting to empower other women. (Image © Tara Darby)

Tell us a little about how unobra came to be?
I’m an architect, running my own company (Citizens Design Bureau). In 2017 I was diagnosed with breast cancer; I had a mastectomy after going through chemotherapy, and for various medical reasons I decided not to have a reconstruction. Afterwards, I realised that there must be thousands of women who looked like me, but I had never seen a woman with one breast. I kept asking myself: ‘am I the only one who doesn’t want to wear uncomfortable prosthetics?’. I went from feeling quite confident about my body to feeling as though I had to wear this strange costume in order to go out. As an architect, I believed I could design a way to feel good in my new body, and I wanted to share that with other women.

How did you go about designing the first bra?
After having surgery your whole underwear drawer is obsolete… so I cut all my bras in half and started experimenting. I had a lot of swelling as well as radiotherapy burns, which made my skin very sensitive, so I wanted to create something that didn’t have tight elastic or scratchy fabrics, but that still gave great support. I made a lot of prototypes, but I’m not an expert seamstress, and bras really are a piece of engineering. My husband paid for me to go to bespoke lingerie maker, Buttress & Snatch for my birthday in 2018, so I took along my sketches and asked her to help. She made some gorgeous bespoke versions of my ideas, but I wanted to find a way to make this accessible to more women.

“… this thing of beauty has made me so happy. I felt like a million dollars wearing it, which is a hell of an achievement right now!”

How has the collection developed?
The design has evolved in so many ways. We’ve chosen incredible, soft fabric and perfected details around seams and fastenings to maximise comfort. The exact depth of the flat band maximises compression over the scar tissue to help reduce swelling. We’ve refined the design so that (I hope you agree) it looks really elegant and sleek. I want people’s first impression to be: ‘what a totally fabulous woman’ rather than ‘oh here’s the one-boob lady’. I really think we’ve shifted how women feel about their bodies after a mastectomy.

What are the challenges in designing asymmetrical bras?
So many… Typical bra sizing involves measuring over the bust and under the bust, but what if there’s only one breast? How do we try out our designs? It’s not possible to buy an asymmetric mannequin and 3D design software assumes a symmetrical body. Therefore, all our designs in every size have to be tested on live models, which is difficult and expensive, as well as being really sensitive. Many of the women who are modelling for us are going through treatment and they give up their time in between appointments – often while feeling unwell – but they are so determined (and we are so grateful). We are also trying to make the sizing as inclusive as possible, so we are creating bras from 32-42 in A-G cups. This is 54 sizes. We then have to double that to create a left and a right cup version. It is a huge challenge.

“I need this bra. It’s going to change my life. I know that sounds crazy but it’s the truth”

How do you want women wearing your bras to feel?
When you go through cancer, so much of your life changes and you look in the mirror and hardly recognise yourself. After surgery, everyone around you is celebrating that your treatment is ‘over’, but so many women feel that the hard part is only just beginning, trying to come to terms with their new body and all the impacts of treatment more broadly. More than anything, I want women to wear an unobra, look in the mirror and feel themselves – the most liberated, alive, powerful version of themselves – without hiding. I’ve had so many incredible messages that are a testament to that.

Tell us about the role of sustainability in your business
I am really determined that we don’t become part of a fast fashion, high waste culture. We also want to support small-scale, British manufacturing, cutting down on transport costs and emissions. That means we are making our products in preordered, limited-edition batches, so there is no waste. It also means we can be responsive to customer feedback. The main fabric we are using for the bra is Lenzing modal, made from wood pulp (as a by-product of the European timber industry). The main fabric for the swimwear is Carvico econyl which is made from recycled ocean plastics. And we’re continually on the lookout for sustainable sources of other accessories and fabrics.

What’s next for uno?
We are developing a bra specifically for NHS prescription to be offered to all women after surgery – fingers crossed! We’re also planning linkups with high street brands.