When fashion designer Helen Cody was diagnosed with breast cancer the physical and mental challenges she faced left her void of all creativity and she considered giving up her career in fashion for good. Well-meaning friends who suggested she should take an extended break from design only led to even more self-doubt. But a year on, with the support of her husband and her treatment (for the most part) behind her, she took a trip to Paris – her “spiritual home” – which helped reignite her creativity. Twelve months on, her work has already graced the Oscars and BAFTA red carpets and the designer is feeling more creatively fulfilled than ever before.
How has everything changed since your diagnosis?
“I felt like I shed my skin last year and I did in a way because I lost so much weight. Physically I’m so different to what I was that I find myself wearing boys’ clothes. I started tailoring, which I never did before. If you look at my mood board, it’s like I’m at odds with my femininity because I’m trying to inject the tailoring into it, but of course, I can’t help myself with the embellishments. Overall, there’s more structure to my work. I’m still grappling with the newness of all of that.”
How has your creativity been affected?
“I didn’t have any ideas. I went through a period of being completely blank and thinking I’d never have another idea again. This was going on the whole time I was sick. My focus and energy were all directed to keeping well. I had closed my shop in the Westbury Mall and thought maybe I should just give it all up and go get a job somewhere. My husband, Rory, urged me to hold on to the studio, that I might change my mind.”
“We went to Paris for 10 days in November and we just walked the streets and went to galleries and it was wonderful. The joy of waking up and feeling well, and walking around Paris. It was like visual vitamins. When I came back, I had this very fractured thread of an idea about the fragility of human nature and wondered how I could articulate that? How could I say that with clothes? That’s where it started. And then I had a huge sale, got rid of all of my old things, shed the layers, shed my skin and I thought if I were an artist it would be a blank canvas. You start again. So I got a lot of white fabrics and started working into them. Just like a painter, you start with the blank canvas and then you start colouring it in. I don’t think I’ve ever been more creatively fulfilled, bizarrely. I’m so happy. I'm doing things my way. I'm doing what I want to do. I’m not compromising.”
Did you surprise people by how quickly you returned to work?
“There were a few odd reactions. People told me I was going to hit a wall and to anticipate that and I wouldn’t be able for it, telling me to take the year to emotionally recover. But I was dying to get back. I have no patience to sit around. Something has clicked in me. I’m much clearer about what I want to say. There are lots of projects in the pipeline that are really exciting. I’m an ambassador for Arc Cancer Support and we are planning a big project together and I hope it will be really beneficial to the charity.”
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