Bra Solutions: Built-In Support That’s Comfortable, Easy, and Sustainable

A Q&A with Libby Haan, Founder & CEO of Who Shirt Company

Erin Hazelton is a freelance writer and women’s health advocate. Formerly a fashion and beauty writer, Erin’s career changed paths after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. Since then, her main objective has been educating women about the nuances of breast cancer and encouraging resilience in the face of adversity.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with breast cancer… and why you started Who Shirt Company?

My breast cancer diagnosis was such a surprise. I was in my early forties with no history on either side of my family. I had a bilateral mastectomy since my surgical oncologist said I wasn’t a candidate for a lumpectomy. I was really lucky that it was caught so early. When my surgeon called with my pathology report and said they didn’t find cancer in my lymph nodes, I could hear the relief in her voice. I told her so, and she said she hadn’t seen such a difference from one year’s mammogram to the next and thought it would have been more advanced. After several complications and eight surgeries, it was all finally behind me.  

After I had finally come through all the mess of breast cancer, I started wearing exercise tops or sports bras for sheer comfort, leaving my lacy underwires to languish. Working as a fashion publicist, I’ve always enjoyed getting dressed, and I thought, why can’t there be a t-shirt… a turtleneck… even a sweater with a soft, shelf bra sewn right in? Since nothing like that existed, I figured I was just the person to start making it. Starting a second business just before turning fifty is exactly the sort of thing I’d do, and thus, Who Shirt Company came to life. It was an idea that came straight from the heart.  

2. After mastectomy and reconstruction, some women find they no longer need the support of a bra, that they now have a "bra" built inside their bodies. I know this is one reason women love wearing your two-in-one shirts after they've healed from their surgery. That said, after surgery and radiation, we are often left with scars and skin that can be easily irritated. How were you able to design tops that are so "gentle," which is not always the case with tops that have built-in support?

Who Shirts have a soft, plush elastic band that comfortably hugs your body. For the shelf bra, our cotton pieces use the very same super-soft cotton [as the tee], and our cashmere sweaters have a recycled polyester and Lycra fabric that offers gentle support. Because my left underarm is quite sensitive from lymph node extraction, I was conscious that I didn’t want anything rubbing or squeezing that part of my body. Not having to think about that when I got dressed was a revelation. 

3. What is the significance of the colorful little owl that adorns each of your tops?

I found A Greek Primer book at an antique store during my year-and-a-half saga. It was a dollar, and I only bought it for the beautiful owl on its cover. I had no idea I’d start Who Shirt, but as I regained my energy and felt exhilarated to be healthy and strong again, the idea to make these products began to percolate. The owl is a companion to one of the most important goddesses, Athena. I chose the name Who with its double entendre for the owl’s “hoo” call… and placed it on the back of each garment so that this creature of wisdom could look out for each woman as she confidently embodies who she is in life.

4. Your company is zero-waste. Can you tell us a bit about what that means and how it works?

We work with the amazing non-profit FabScrap. Once our patterns are cut, all excess fabric is gathered in bags and picked up by FabScrap to be recycled. We are committed to reducing waste at every possible step in our manufacturing. We also intend to donate any unsold product to women’s shelters across the U.S.

5. We love that you are also mission-driven and also give back. Please tell us about your efforts to raise money for breast cancer research…

I was very fortunate to be introduced to BCRF (Breast Cancer Research Foundation) by a dear friend who is also a member of the Crappy Cancer Club, as we call it. I know that lives are saved by science and research, so it was never a question that our successes need to be funneled back to this community of doctors, scientists, and, inevitably, to the women who must contend with a breast cancer diagnosis.

6. What was the most helpful gift you received from someone supporting you during your breast cancer journey?

Honestly, the best gift I received was my mother. Even as I write this, I get so emotional thinking about how tirelessly she cared for me. In all, over the course of my surgeries, nearly two months she tended to me, only having to pull her hair out once. We laughed. I slept, and slowly, I got better. She showed up for me as a paragon of motherhood. Only a month after my last surgery, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in her early seventies. I flew home and, by her example, took care of her, patiently suggesting various foods waiting for the first one that didn’t elicit a scowl… letting her know when it was eight pm, and she could finally go to bed.

The gift was acting from deep love through soft hands, wound care, short-order cooking, and the certainty that we would get through it. And we did!

As for proper gifts, a very dear friend, Karina, was a fashion stylist at the time and she went out having learned that you need all front-closure clothing for the weeks following a mastectomy, and came to me with a gift box filled with a shirtdress, tops, cardigans… all things I could wear post-surgery. I was overwhelmed by her kindness.

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Working as a fashion publicist, I’ve always enjoyed getting dressed, and I thought, why can’t there be a t-shirt… a turtleneck…even a sweater with a soft, shelf bra sewn right in?

- Libby Haan

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