“My daughter had a saying: ‘I’ll only die once but I have to live everyday,’ and I’ll never forget that. She wasn’t dying for three years, she was living for three years.” - Joanne Nicholson.
When you or a loved one are diagnosed with a life-changing illness, your world changes uncontrollably. Whether it’s blood tests, immunotherapy or dialysis, hospital visits become a central part of life that are impossible to ignore or switch off. This was the situation that York mother Joanne Nicholson found herself in, when her daughter, Emily Rhodes, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. While Emily was going through treatment, Joanne was crushed by the hurdles her daughter faced. In hospital, everyday clothes had to be taken off to receive treatment, making trips uncomfortable and humiliating. Out of hospital, people failed to take Emily’s illness seriously, making family outings unnecessarily hard.
When Emily passed away aged 24 in 2019, Joanne came together with friend and fellow mother, Claire Myles Wharton, to develop Warpaint. The pair wanted to create clothing that helped people like Emily retain their dignity and a sense of individuality while going through hospital treatment. “If you go into an office job, or if you’re a police or nurse, you’re wearing a uniform,” Joanne says. “But for us, there was nothing out there to help us feel like we’re part of a team or supported by anybody.”
Instead of having to remove clothes to access treatment, the duo make custom garments that enable bloods to be easily taken and medication administered. The zips, pouches and ports that allow this are all hidden, so the wearer can feel both comfortable and fashionable at the same time. As well as this, Warpaint’s feather logo hopes to be a striking reminder to the rest of the world that those who wear the clothes might need more understanding, empathy, or assistance.
Twelve months into developing Warpaint, Claire was diagnosed with breast cancer herself, which she’s currently undergoing treatment for. The clothes that she had spent hours designing with Joanne had suddenly become needed for her own hospital journey. “Through my own treatment, I’ve designed a pair of trousers that provides easy access,” she says. “Now the nurse doesn’t have to put the curtain round and I don’t have to remove my trousers. It's keeping my dignity and giving me back control.”
It’s this sense of empowerment that has formed a strong community between those involved with Warpaint. Family, friends, and countless strangers have reached out to the duo to express their support for the project. And their clothes are already making a real impact on people they know. Joanne tells the story of a close friend who felt dejected after a bowel cancer diagnosis, due to needing a stoma. After being invited to model for Warpaint, they say that their friend’s outlook on life has “completely changed.” When it comes to the York Fashion Week Independent runway, every model for the brand will have a diagnosis, including those with a range of conditions, such as cancer, dialysis and seizures.
In the momentous progress they’ve made in the past two years, Warpaint has completely changed the lives of Joanne and Claire. When Emily passed, Joanne explains how she wasn’t able to leave the house. “If this hadn’t come along, I don't think I would have been where I am now. Not only that but my son has benign tumours as well. I was only here to keep him going, but this has completely changed me.” Meanwhile, Claire explains “If I hadn't been doing this I would have never anticipated that I’d be wearing my own brand of clothing, but here I am.”
If there’s one thing that listening to Joanne and Claire’s determination has shown, it’s that Warpaint is truly fashion for the fight.
Written by Maya Bewley