One day before her 28th birthday, Dana Donofree was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer.
That grim surprise kicked off a grueling series of events. She endured chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery. Twelve months later, however, things were looking up. She was excited about her career in fashion and her new marriage. The one problem: She couldn’t find good bra options for women who’d undergone reconstructive surgery.
“I woke up in the middle of the night and thought: Why do I keep complaining about this? I’m a fashion designer. I can do something,” recalls Donofree, now 33 and living in Philadelphia.
That frustration helped fuel the creation of AnaOno Intimates, a line of bras and lingerie. The bras are engineered to accommodate surgically reconstructed breasts. They also work for women during the post-surgery transition phases, as tissue and muscle are gently expanded to fit implants. “My work in fashion taught me a lot about fit, construction and the technical aspects of clothing,” says Donofree, who found traditional underwire bras painful and sports bras unacceptable for work or evening attire. However, she had a lot to learn about the lingerie business and about running a company.
But she got up to speed quickly, thanks to the robust demand for her products. Shortly after launching her website in May 2014, she began selling wholesale to specialty boutiques. The launch also generated serious media buzz. Donofree was featured in The New York Times, in People magazine and on NBC’s Today show. She also was awarded a $10,000 FedEx Small Business Grant to explore how to market her products and expand the business. The publicity and grant have helped — AnaOno has seen a three-fold increase in sales since April 2015.
“We’ve hit a tipping point,” says Donofree, who expects to hire her first noncontract employee soon. “Much of this year has been stressful, but exciting.”
The AnaOno line includes five bra styles — each named for a woman Donofree has met during her breast cancer journey. The styles are appropriate for different types and phases of reconstruction as well as for different types of clothing, from workout wear to formal. “What makes my bras unique is the soft structure,” she says. “The bra needed to fit me. I didn’t need to fit the bra.”
“I wanted to make sure women could continue to live their lives,” adds Donofree, who spent three years developing the product and building out a supply chain. She sources fabric from the U.S., China, Colombia and Canada that has more stretch than typical bra material and recovers its shape well. Initially, the bras were made in China and shipped to the U.S. via FedEx, but she’s since moved manufacturing operations to Philadelphia to gain greater control over the process.
While AnaOno was the first firm in the niche, it’s only now starting to tap into a significant market. In the U.S. alone, 2.9 million women are living with breast cancer, and by some estimates, about one-third of them have had reconstructive surgery. Once the website went live, international orders also came in, and AnaOno now uses FedEx to ship all over North America, as well as to Asia and Europe.
So far, she’s found that survivors who try the bras are the company’s biggest ambassadors, telling their friends and doctors about the product. But the products may have broader appeal. Donofree says she has sold bras to women who’ve had non-cancer-related breast reductions or augmentations and even women who don’t care for traditional bras.
But Donofree is keeping her focus on helping her fellow survivors. The models on the AnaOno website are all survivors, and she contributes 5 percent of sales to two charities: Jill’s Wish, which provides financial assistance to women as they go through the treatment process, and Living Beyond Breast Cancer, a foundation focused on providing information to breast cancer patients from diagnosis through treatment.
While the business is taking off, Donofree says her efforts extend beyond financial rewards. “I have a mission to help women around the world,” she says.
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