Yorkshire fashion brand Warpaint clothing gives comfort and accessibility for people having hospital treatment for cancer and more

Warpaint is a ground-breaking clothing range for people having hospital treatments and procedures, launched in memory of Emily Rhodes, who died from a brain tumour. Stephanie Smith reports.

WARPAINT: On the catwalk at York Fashion Week. Picture by Olivia Brabbs.
WARPAINT: On the catwalk at York Fashion Week. Picture by Olivia Brabbs.

For Emily Rhodes, putting on make-up gave her back some of the courage she needed to face the world. “She used to say to me, ‘Mum, I’m putting my warpaint on to go out’,” says her mother, Joanne Nicholson. “We all have our warpaint, it can be an item of clothing or your make-up or your hair, and you feel more confident and in control.”

Emily died of a brain tumour on April 24, 2019, three years after her diagnosis. Her bravery, and the struggles she faced, inspired Joanne and her friend Claire Wharton to create a collection of clothing for people undergoing medical treatments of all kinds, from chemotherapy to dialysis, regular injections, transfusions, scans and blood tests.

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Called Warpaint, the clothes are street-cool hoodies and trousers with carefully placed openings, non-metal zips, pouches, drawstrings and tourniquets to allow medical procedures and access to, for example, chemotherapy ports, stoma bags, catheters and drains. Patients at York Hospital have been trialling the range, and both they and nursing staff have been impressed by how quickly, easily and discreetly some treatments can be delivered.

[email protected] Joanne Nicholson, her daughter Emily Rhodes who sadly died of a brain tumour, and Claire Wharton.

Warpaint launched at Cosy Club in York last month, on the third anniversary of Emily’s death, with the website going live at 10.10pm, the time she died. This month, Joanne and Claire took the collection to York Fashion Week, where it was modelled on the catwalk by friends and patients.

Emily would be beyond proud, says Joanne. York was her home city, where she grew up with Joanne, father Martin and brother Matthew, now 23.

The family moved to Perth in Australia in 2012, and for five years, they thrived. Emily was 21 when she had her first seizure. She had just moved to her first house and was modelling, as well as working as a manager at a golf club. Four months later, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and then told it was terminal.

Emily wanted to go home to York to die among her family and friends, so they gave up everything to return. A week before they left, Matthew was diagnosed with epididymal tumours. Fortunately, they were benign and he is now doing well. “It was unbelievable – what else could happen? But he is lucky,” says Joanne.

WARPAINT: On the catwalk at York Fashion Week. Picture by Olivia Brabbs.

They settled back in York in 2017, with the help of family and friends, and York Council, which found them a home. Emily improved and was almost back to her old self for a year, although taking chemotherapy tablets every day. Joanne says: “Mornings were pretty rough, there were changes in her physical appearance, and her mental state was down.”

Emily’s speech was slurred, she was going blind, and she had gained weight due to treatment. Sadly, the reactions she faced from the public, out and about both in Australia and in York, upset Emily and Joanne. Emily was trying on trousers in a boutique in Australia when they both overheard one shop assistant say to the other, “Would you really bother if you looked like that?”

Joanne wanted to react but Emily said no. “She started to cry and said ‘Mum, they just don’t understand, so don’t.’ We left, but she bought the trousers, bless her. And then, I think the most heart-breaking thing she ever said to me, in the car, she said, ‘If I had the means to do it right now, I’d take my own life.’”

In York, a charity shop refused to let her use the toilet, directing her to a pub. “She didn’t make it and never went into York city centre again,” says Joanne. “She didn’t want to walk around with a lanyard on saying ‘I’ve got this’.

Arthur, 87, wears a Team Warpaint T-shirt.

“If she didn’t have to go through what she went through mentally and physically, her journey would have been a lot easier. It wasn’t just the cancer, it was the treatment, it was the acceptance and not understanding why she looked like she did, and felt like she did, and it needed to change.”

Joanne joined forces with Claire Wharton, the friend she had known since Emily and Claire’s daughter Libby had first met at a dance club, aged six. They design all the garments themselves. Claire has a fashion design diploma and is a talented sewer and Joanne had worked in the NHS for 10 years.

“Emily had a lot of weight gain and loss very suddenly, so all garments have drawstrings in,” says Joanne. “They are all oversized. My daughter went from a size 6/8 to a size 18 in weeks, so her skin was splitting, she was sore, she couldn’t walk properly. That was the start for me.

“Then it progressed. People going for cancer treatments are cold because your blood is thinner with medication. And with dialysis, they can be sat for six hours wrapped in blankets, so we have designed something so you can keep your own clothes on and unzip the arms to be attached to the machines.”

Shane Denny and Tommy Denny wear Warpaint scar T-shirt £35, and other Tshirts, from £20, at warpaint.online.

The Loci is the hero product, a grey hoodie with a detachable snood, a pouch for a stoma bag, and openings for leads and catheters. There are products at the sampling stage including dresses for summer and winter, and they are looking for a local manufacturer. The first clothes were made overseas via a Brighton firm, but they are now sourcing manufacturers in Leicester and Bradford.

Claire, who is married to Billy and has three children, Libby, plus Billy and Lois, has been trialling the clothes herself. She had a mastectomy after Stage 4 breast cancer was diagnosed last March, and now has targeted therapy once every three weeks. Claire was looking after Joanne’s dog while Joanne was at her sister’s funeral (she died of renal cancer last March). “She wouldn’t leave her alone, sat on her, and kept sniffing her breast,” says Joanne. Claire went to her doctor. “If the dog hadn’t done that, Claire wouldn’t have gone.”

They want to expand the range and hope people will get in touch with specific needs and suggestions, although they are taking the launch slowly to ensure the products are available and working properly. “And that people feel comfortable,” says Joanne. “It’s not just the purpose, it’s about being able to feel yourself , comfortable and in control, being able to go for something to eat after treatment.”

The Warpaint emblem is a feather and they hope it might become a recognisable symbol, something that people with cancer and other conditions can wear, out and about, to show that they are having treatment, and need help and consideration.

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All of Warpaint's clothes and accessories can be found at warpaint.online @warpaint.uk

Lucy Ledgeway and Naomi McPherson wear Warpaint T-shirts, £20, with a percentage to charity.
The Warpaint cap with the feather logo.
Ric Fisher, who is being treated for a brain tumour, wearing the Loci hoodie, £118, at warpaint.online. There is a Pay It Forward scheme whereby Warpaint clothes can be bought and donated for a patient to wear.
DJ Christian Blanes on the catwalk at York Fashion Week. Picture: Olivia Brabbs.