Cancer presents in many different forms; Melissa Leach was ill-prepared for the curve ball.
But ... she ran with it.
Factor, a capsule collection of “sun-protective, sustainable” swimwear, came out of that experience.
The line had its official launch last month.
“The concept is truly not just another swimwear line,” said Ms Leach, a former model who was working for British luxury fashion house Burberry when her melanoma was discovered in 2007. “It offers UPF 50+ protection and is made from a really luxurious Italian fabric.
“An unintended benefit is that it is constructed in a seamless way and double-lined. It resulted in a sculpting effect on the body which is really beautiful.”
Although proud of what she’s accomplished, it wasn’t her goal when she gave up the successful modelling career she’d built in New Brunswick, Canada.
“I was always more interested in the business aspects of fashion,” said Ms Leach, who got a business degree from St Mary’s University and then left the Atlantic province for the UK.
There, she studied at the London College of Fashion. After graduation, she decided to stay on and take advantage of all the metropolis had to offer.
The move paid off. A business development role with the British Fashion Council parachuted into similar jobs with high-end fashion companies Georgina Goodman Ltd and Burberry Group plc.
She was personally recruited by Hannah Colman, president of Jimmy Choo Ltd Europe, Middle East and eCommerce, to join the luxury shoes, bags and accessories company.
A day into her job at Burberry she discovered “a little spot” on her shin.
“I don’t have a lot of moles so it stood out,” she said, explaining that it didn’t look at all suspicious, more like an ingrown hair.
The problem was that it didn’t go away — and it changed in shape.
“I’d read years earlier in a magazine about a woman who had skin cancer. She discovered her melanoma after she went to a facialist.
“It looked just like a spot. The facialist tried to extract it but nothing happened and so she went to a dermatologist where she found out it was skin cancer.”
That cancerous cells could look atypical, stuck with her.
“So when I saw the spot on my leg my mind cast back to that article I read several years before. It was a pink spot when it started out and it got bigger.”
Her GP thought “it looked fine”, but suggested she see a dermatologist for a more expert assessment. “The dermatologist said it looked like nothing, that I must have cut myself while shaving.
“But I had a very strong intuition that told me something was wrong. I explained that it had been there for ages and had changed a lot.”
The dermatologist made it clear that she thought Ms Leach was wasting her time, eventually asking her to leave the room so she could see to waiting patients. Ms Leach refused to budge.
Reluctantly, the dermatologist “did a punch biopsy and then sent me off with one stitch”.
Two days later, Ms Leach received the news she’d feared: malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer.
If treated early, melanoma is almost always curable. Unnoticed, it can spread to other parts of the body and can be fatal. Although not the most common of the skin cancers, it causes the most deaths.
“It’s the only form that can spread internally through the blood,” she said. “Whether it does or not depends on several factors, the main one being how deep it has gone into your bloodstream.”
The dermatologist, who Ms Leach acknowledged was only recently qualified, “apologised profusely” and promised to listen more carefully to patients in the future.
“She then proceeded to take a bigger margin of skin cover and I had to have several surgeries.
“The depth of melanoma wasn’t too deep so it did not spread. I was very lucky. For three years, every three months I went for a checkup.
“Even now, every six months I have a full body checkup to make sure everything is safe and I pay very close attention in taking care of my skin.”
Having dodged a bullet, she made skin protection a priority. Swimwear became a problem.
“Something like this puts fear in you. You want to make sure you’re protecting yourself. I’d been working in fashion with high-end luxury brands; I’m a fashion lover and have a very specific style.
“Everything on the market was either very sporty, a rash guard or a surf suit, or quite dated in patterns and felt at odds for what I was looking for, or ill-fitting.”
She searched, unsuccessfully, for something that was “chic and elegant and also more versatile”.
The hunt became more serious when she and her husband moved here, with their daughters, three years ago. “Before, I was adding to my holiday wardrobe, but here, it’s every weekend at a pool, beach or on a boat. I thought, what better time to take the plunge and develop a concept myself.”
Factor consists of “four strong, timeless silhouettes in three classic colours”.
The styles are completely different and provide different levels of sun coverage.
“You can wear them as swimwear to protect you from the sun or put them on with a beautiful skirt or pair of shorts and head out for dinner or drinks,” Ms Leach said. “Skin cancer is not only a light skin problem — which is a really important point in Bermuda.
“Skin cancer on darker skin is usually discovered at a later stage; people are not as vigilant in checking.
“They feel it’s not as important to them but it’s just as important as it is to everyone else.”
Each suit comes with a removable belt that can “accentuate the waist as swimwear or you can take it off and use as a ready-to-wear piece”.
The suits can also be paired with a co-ordinating head wrap “for the ultimate next-level protection”.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of the pieces, but to get there took a lot of research,” Ms Leach said, adding that it took between 12 and 15 months for her to develop the capsule.
“My background is not in production, it’s not in design. It was a massive learning curve.
“I’m very appreciative of having a small supportive community like Bermuda to launch my product.”
The fabric is “fully sustainable” having been made from discarded fishing nets.
“It was not necessarily at the forefront of my mind, but when presented with it, it would have been irresponsible not to choose that option.
“Living in Bermuda, you can go to any beach on any weekend and pick up several pieces of plastic; you can see the ocean life and the effect it has on them.”
Bermudian Lillian Lightbourn is a model on the Factor website; the images were shot by Bermudian artist Jon Legere’s New York team, Unreasonable Studios.
“Factor Bermuda is the logo and I hope it’s a lovely representation of Bermuda,” Ms Leach said. “I tried as much as possible to keep it very Bermudian and support Bermudians in the process.”
• Swimwear from Melissa Leach’s capsule Factor is available on www.factorbermuda.com where she is offering a 10 per cent discount on sales. Delivery is free. The pieces may also be bought at Resort Life + Style in the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club and at Regali in Rosewood Bermuda. Follow Factor on Instagram: @factorbermuda