Every scar, like every picture, tells a story. And for the young model who is the face of new Canadian label Ellesmere Lingerie, it’s a story about determination, acceptance and beating the odds.
The unretouched campaign images for the Vancouver brand’s debut collection don’t try to hide the model’s chest scarring, which is the legacy of a lifetime of open-heart surgeries that are “too many to count.”
The 25-year-old non-professional model, who goes by her Instagram name @mrreeow, was born with pulmonary atresia, meaning her heart lacked the pulmonary valve needed to carry blood to the lungs.
Risky, periodic operations have been a constant fact of life. She had her first heart surgery when only a few days old and in the ensuing years has had heart valves replaced “8 or 9 times.”
The condition is potentially fatal and the model was once considered for a heart transplant. But she is neither embarrassed nor shy about her scars, which extend under her arm and to her back and which she shows off to her social media followers. A visible reminder of her self-confidence is evident in the large Marilyn Monroe tattoo, positioned directly below her heart.
“When I was in middle school I was completely self-conscious of my scar and always covered it, but as I got older I eventually stopped caring,” she said in an email. “I am completely open to people who have questions because I know if the roles were reversed I would be just as curious.
“So far, I’m doing pretty well. Other than physical activity being a bit more difficult for me, I’m as good as any other person.”
The Ellesmere photo campaign is the latest example of a growing movement among progressive lingerie labels to employ models who differ from the industry’s narrow norms, which put a premium on slender body shapes and flawless skin.
But designer Julia Rechel, who launched Ellesmere from her Gastown studio last month, wasn’t looking to be part of a trend when she hired @mrreeow, she was just trying to find someone who reflected her brand’s identity. The dark-haired millennial beauty with the edgy urban vibe fit the bill.
“Heavily photoshopped images in mainstream lingerie advertising do nothing for me,” Rechel told Lingerie Talk. “I’ve never been able to relate or aspire to that type of look, and so as a designer I wanted a model who represented a more independent take on beauty and identity.”
Rechel discovered her muse on Instagram and photographer Richie Lubaton shot the campaign in natural light in a B.C. heritage home.
“I really admire and respect her confidence,” Rechel said. “It was really an honour to work with her. She is a true testament to inner strength.
“And while you can never truly tell someone’s personality from a picture, she is really the loveliest, most charming girl around. She perfectly embodies what Ellesmere is about.”
Named for the huge, barren island in Canada’s northern Arctic, Ellesmere is an ethical, hand-made brand that creates sleek, “weightless” lingerie pieces with high technical standards and an emphasis on fit. Its debut collection, called Santa Sofia, offers two bra and two brief styles in three colourways with retail prices ranging from $47-137.
Rechel, who had been sewing and pattern-making since childhood, graduated in 2009 from Emily Carr University, B.C.’s acclaimed art and design school, where she majored in sculpture with a focus on textile arts. She picked up lingerie craft by taking the world-renowed bra-makers certification program from Beverly Johnson in Hamilton, Ontario (who also trained young industry star Christina Remenyi of Fortnight Lingerie).
“Bras are really the ideal garment for me,” Rechel said. “They’re the perfect balance of technical challenge paired with an endless possibility for aesthetic exploration.
“Although we often like to think of lingerie as light and delicate, bras are really high-performing pieces of technology.”
She left her visual arts career to start a lingerie label, she says, partly in response to the widespread sexualization of women in mainstream lingerie marketing.
“Starting a lingerie line has allowed me to not only do what I love practically — develop beautiful lingerie! — but also lets me celebrate the beauty in a women who dresses for herself,” she said. “I want to design in a way that celebrates women feeling good about themselves.”
Ellesmere has another distinction — it may be the first lingerie brand inspired by Canada’s frozen north. Rechel spent her youth in the Yukon and a few years ago did a road trip up to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, where she was reminded of its solitude and beauty.
“The fantastical experience of watching the Northern Lights as a child prompted my interest in magical realism as a literary genre,” she said, noting that the Santa Sofia collection is named for a character in 100 Years of Solitude. “Seeing something so beautiful that it seemed unreal inspires me to design pieces that look like they are an extension of the natural body.
“My background in sculpture really breaks the lingerie down formally for me,” she added. “I tend to focus on the outline and I like a clean ending. It’s not so much about shaping the body, but more about wearing an edge that would not normally exist, such as the dropped bridge in the demi bra. … I love the feeling of cold beauty and the parallels between intimacy and individuality.”
Ellesmere is currently available only through the Knickers Lingerie boutique in Vancouver, but Rechel is talking with other stockists and hopes to see her line in boutiques across Canada soon. Keep checking the brand website for information about new retail partners.