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Career 180: Finding fashion in recovery

ELIZABETH LIPPMAN

ELIZABETH LIPPMAN Photo Credit: LAUREL KAMEN

Laurel Kamen co-founded the Alloro Collection last March — a fashion line that focuses on the changes in body contour, comfort and appearance experienced by women who have battled breast cancer.

She was diagnosed with cancer in her left breast in September 2011 and opted to have a double mastectomy. The decision saved her life, as doctors discovered more severe cancer in her right breast.

The clothes are sold at allorocollection.com and in trunk shows at cancer research fundraisers around the country. Before devoting her life to helping breast cancer patients and survivors feel beautiful and comfy, Kamen, 66, was at American Express for 33 years until 2008. She lives on the East side.

Why did you leave American Express?

I figured the 33 years was enough in one place and I felt that I had done everything I could do there and I just wanted something new in my life. … I retired happily and then went on to be a consultant with the Postmaster General of the United States for 2 ½ years.

Did you have previous experience in fashion?

I did work at Bloomingdale’s in the early '70s but I was in the personnel department. But when you work at Bloomingdale’s New York you learn fashion inside and out.

Why did you feel there was a need for this kind of clothing?

I was looking at what I was going to wear after my surgery and I went online and I looked at the blogs and I spoke to my friends and everyone said, ‘Well you have to wear a big man’s shirt,’ or, ‘You have to go to a secondhand store and get clothes that are three sizes too big,’ and I thought, well wait a minute, there are so many women who have breast cancer, why can’t we design a collection for women just like me? Women who love fashion and who want to recover.

What is a challenge in designing this kind of women’s clothing?

It’s all a challenge. It’s an overwhelming challenge to put together something that’s never really been done before in a way that’s sensitive, in a way that’s comprehensive, that captures all the challenges women go through, that encompasses complex designs [and] beautiful fabrics. My coworker and I, we are self-funded, so we put this all together ourselves without any outside funding and that can be a bit daunting as you can imagine. It’s fun though.

Did you get any help from any famous designers?

No, but one of the goals of our business is to not only reach out to famous designers to continue our collection but to reach out to upcoming young designers. … We hope to stimulate, say, a [Fashion Institute of Technology] or Pratt [University] to do a competition to add a piece to our collection. We want to make this fun and exciting, colorful, interesting.

How do Alloro Collection designs help with discomforts women experience after a mastectomy?

With many of our pieces, while the sleeves are blousy at the top, they are also cut in at the cuff to give a beautiful feminine look,and while our clothes fall away from our body around the bust they are cut in to give the illusion of a feminine figure without being tight, without chaffing, without touching the skin. Our signature tops have no seams on the side, the seams are on the back, because after surgery or radiation, side sensitivity can be very painful. … Our fabrics are completely soft and the fabrics are such that they breathe.

Since your double mastectomy, what do you feel sexiest in?

I like to wear pieces in our collection that have a beautiful draping neckline so that I feel extremely feminine but I don’t feel exposed and the neckline is flattering and yet I’m comfortable in it, and that makes me feel wonderful.

Do you have any advice for readers who are considering a career 180?

I would say, be prepared to step so far out of your comfort zone that it’s a bit terrifying. And I would say never accept failure as a possibility -- if you’re going to go do it, just keep going. You shouldn’t do a 180 unless you feel real passion for what you’re about to do.

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