Illness Changes Everything

Phylise Sands hadn’t held a paying job in 20 years. But witnessing her sister’s battle with cancer inspired her to start her own activewear company

by Amanda Robb
phylise sands image
“When everything in your life is fine, it is pretty easy to be a good person,” says Sands, shown here at The Lara Touch exercise studio. “It’s when things are bad that it’s hard.”
Photograph: Adam Golfer

It’s 10:30 on a fall morning at the Exhale Mind Body Spa on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Glistening women exit a core-fusion class and wander into the white tea–scented reception area, where a lingerie and activewear pop-up sale is under way. Most of the vendors step forward to meet their potential customers. But Phylise Sands, 49, owner of Red Daisy, hovers behind her luxury bras, tanks and tights. Tiny, with the lithe muscles of a distance runner, Sands could be mistaken for a spa customer. She watches as several women admire Red Daisy’s corset- and girdle-inspired designs and others ooh and ahh over the supersmooth compression fabric. But Sands approaches only one woman—the one who looks upset. “Can I help you with something?” Sands asks.

Within minutes, Sands is in a dressing room with the voluptuous brunette as she tries on bras and pours out her heart. Her boyfriend says she has to lose weight to be successful at work. She has an appointment for liposuction. Sands gently suggests that surgery might be extreme: Lovers are supposed to be supportive, all changes are stressful, and she looks gorgeous in the Jaclyn bra. “Life is challenging you in ways you didn’t expect,” Sands says. “Maybe challenge it back.”

What inspired Sands to start her own business was a bitterly unexpected event. Eight years ago, Sands led a comfortable life as a busy stay-at-home mom with three children and an investment-banker husband. There were squash and lacrosse practices to ferry the kids to. There was volunteer work at school and at her synagogue. When she got an hour or two for herself, Sands went on long runs in Central Park. Even when she was diagnosed with melanoma and her mother with breast cancer, Sands still considered herself extraordinarily blessed. “Both our cancers were caught so early!” she says. But while Sands was in the waiting room during her mom’s lumpectomy, her younger sister, Jackie Devitt, arrived in tears.

“Jackie, you’re overreacting,” Sands said. “Mom is going to be fine.”

“It’s not Mom,” Devitt said. “It’s me.”

Devitt, then 38 and two years shy of the National Cancer Institute’s recommended age for mammogram screening, had never gone with her mother and sister for their annual “mammo date”—a mother-daughter trip to the radiologist, then lunch. But since they were all well aware that the disease can run in families, Sands’s mother scheduled a screening for Devitt during her own surgery. Devitt’s mammogram revealed a mass in her right breast. It was cancer, and it had spread to 14 of her lymph nodes.

“I was devastated,” Sands says. “Jackie is my baby sister. I often took care of her after our parents divorced [Sands was 13, Devitt nine], so I guess I’ve always felt like she was my first baby.” As Devitt underwent a double mastectomy, radiation, chemotherapy, breast reconstruction, a hospital-borne infection, a redo of the breast reconstruction, a hysterectomy, more radiation and more chemotherapy, Sands stepped back into her maternal role. She took her sister to doctor appointments, oversaw holidays, paid Devitt’s bills when necessary and found the best wig maker.

Yet even as she was helping, Sands felt wretched. “It’s a cliché to say you feel guilty because everything is OK in your life, but I did feel really guilty,” she says. “Because the truth is, when everything in your life is fine, it is pretty easy to be a good person. It’s when things are bad that it’s hard. And there was my sister, Jackie, being told she was dying when she had very young children. Her marriage became very stressed [the couple divorced three years ago]. She is often in pain. But still, every single day she chooses to fight to live. Watching my sister changed the way I look at my life. I wanted to emulate her strength by finding a challenge of my own to take on with full force.”

But the search wasn’t easy, and sometimes Sands felt hopeless. When that happened, she dealt with it by exercising. One day in May 2008, after a run, with her breasts stuffed into an itchy, bulky jog top, Sands had an idea. She’d always been irked by the poor fit of sports bras, so she decided she would design and manufacture beautiful--looking, lovely-feeling, proper-fitting athletic bras and donate part of the profits to breast-cancer research. She would call her company Red Daisy—in honor of the two sisters’ red hair and the lace flowers they used to collect from their grandfather’s embroidery factory.

That evening, she told her husband. His reaction: The idea was sweet but a little nuts. He knew his wife was supersmart and well organized, but she hadn’t held a paying job in 20 years. And except for selling Joan & David shoes during the Clinton administration, she’d never worked in fashion.

“I’m just going to start researching it,” Sands told him. While he was at work and her children at school, she went from store to store, trying on different bras and jog tops to see what was available. She discovered that bras are among the most difficult garments to make. She learned that there are virtually no lingerie or athletic-wear factories in the United States and that overseas facilities do not fill phone or Internet orders. She would need to find an industry insider, so she reached out to everyone in her social circle and finally discovered that her dad’s wife’s best friend knew someone who knew the iconic designer Roslyn Harte.

The owner of an intimate-apparel studio since 1954, Harte had spent a half century designing for major lingerie manufacturers, including Vanity Fair and Victoria’s Secret. But when Sands eagerly telephoned, Harte told her to go away. Twenty times. “All start-up companies are really a pain,” says Harte. “And Phylise didn’t know anything about the industry.”

Sands did sense a weakness in Harte’s armor: The designer is very philanthropic. So Sands honed her Red Daisy pitch to highlight her company’s commitment to breast-cancer research. “Yeah,” Harte sighs, “she finally got me. I thought, Oh, all right, I’ll put up with her.”

Harte agreed to design a bra, but one quickly turned into three—a soft cup, an underwire and a pullover. Sands made an initial investment of $7,500 in the project, which covered the prototypes, patterns and mockups, but she didn’t realize she’d have to pay extra for the “fit models,” women who, for $200 to $250 an hour, try on prototypes so adjustments can be made. “They are very harsh bra critics,” says Sands. “ ‘The strap is too tight! The cup binds!’ You go through about 30 fittings for every bra.”

During this process, Harte told Sands, “You know, three bras does not a company-with-market-presence make.” That requires a family of related pieces that mix and match, a line. Sands’s own buying habits told her this was true, so she expanded her vision to include tank tops, leggings, briefs and shorts—and her costs started escalating. In January 2010, when Sands had already spent about $20,000 of her family’s savings, she and her husband drew up a formal business plan. Over the next two years they’d risk a total of $200,000, or an average of $8,333 a month, coming from their investments and income.

“When I hired Roslyn to make that first bra, I thought I’d be out selling them in six months,” says Sands. “It sounds naive, because it was naive.” In reality, it was three years before she was ready to sell a single item.

Harte suggested using vintage corset and girdle patterns as inspiration for the entire Red Daisy line. Sands thought the idea was brilliant; those designs were all about beauty and support. Next, she and Harte began a quest for the right fabric. They found it in an Italian cloth made from spandex wrapped in microfiber. It was soft and strong. Harte had a relationship with factory owners in Hong Kong, and they agreed to make what was for them an unusually small order—7,500 pieces.

Until early 2011, Sands had been able to prevent the demands of Red Daisy from interfering with her domestic routine. “My family is used to having me around—cooking for them, caring for them,” she says. “But now I’d get calls in the middle of the night because people were on the other side of the world. Fittings would run over, and I’d miss picking up my son from squash practice. I’d get distracted by e-mails from customs officials. My husband and kids got pretty grumpy sometimes. I felt guilty.”

That summer, Sands attended her first trade show. Harte warned her not to expect a single order—not at the show and not for her entire first year. “In general, retailers won’t buy from new companies,” Harte says. “They have quality-control issues, delivery problems, and they tend to go out of business.”

It is hard to say which of the two women was more stunned when 12 retailers placed Red Daisy orders.

“The product has a unique sex appeal,” says Harte. “In this economy, it took something really special for people to take a risk on something new.”

The risk turned out to be real: The Hong Kong factory promised Sands her products in October 2011—but didn’t deliver them until February 2012. “I called everyone and explained as best I could,” says Sands. “But a quarter of the stores canceled their orders anyway.”

The other retailers, however, agreed to wait. After her first shipment arrived, Sands started doing trunk shows, at least two a month, mostly at gyms and spas, all within a half day’s drive of her home. The shows were so effective that she still does them, and when she needs help, she hires her nieces. The only other people she pays are a part-time assistant, an accountant and a part-time sales rep. Today, just a year after Sands officially launched, Red Daisy’s bras, tanks, briefs and leggings are available in 23 boutiques around the country (see red-daisy​.com). The items cost $28 to $95, and each one carries a little daisy-shaped charm reminding women to get their annual mammograms. Far from earning the zero dollars that Harte had once predicted, Sands has already grossed an estimated $240,000 and donated $5,500 to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. She doesn’t pay herself yet, preferring to reinvest earnings. “I’m narrowing the line, cutting out briefs and yoga pants that didn’t do well and expanding the color selection of the bras, tops and tights that found a market. My family still gets irritated that I’m not as available as I used to be, but mostly everyone is coping. They love my -sister—she’s still undergoing -treatment—and they understand that Red Daisy is for her and women like her.”

Back at Exhale Mind Body Spa, Sands and her customer are leaving the dressing room. The brunette hugs Sands, thanks her profusely and buys three bras. Sands is pleased, but, she says, “I have a bigger picture: What I love about Red Daisy is that I get to help. Sometimes it’s a sale. Sometimes it’s donating to breast-cancer research, or it’s something else. On really great days, it’s everything.”

Amanda Robb is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Next: Turning your Private Passion into a Career

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First Published Mon, 2013-03-04 17:51

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