When Danielle Ossher needed a custom new style after a double mastectomy left her body permanently changed, she entrusted the experts in the Buffalo State Fashion and Textile Technology Department to help her get her confidence back.
Ossher, the editor of Buffalo Magazine, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30. This summer, she celebrated her fifth year cancer-free with “Reclaim You,” a special fashion feature, including a new look for herself and two contest winners, fellow breast cancer survivors. When it came time to find a designer to create her new clothes, Ossher approached Erin Habes, lecturer in fashion and textile technology (FTT) at Buffalo State.
“She had seen Runway,” Habes said, referring to FTT’s annual fashion show. “She was just blown away by the talent.”
Ossher wanted to hire a student to create an outfit to fit her body the way it is now, highlighting the parts she felt most confident about. For Habes, the choice was clear: Lisa Siemer Harvey.
“Lisa was the first person I thought of,” Habes said. “She’s a very talented student, and this was on par with what she stands for as a designer, so it worked out perfectly.”
“Because I’m an older student, I come to the table with a different skill set.”
—Lisa Siemer Harvey
With Shantell Reid, assistant professor in FTT, to help support and guide her, Siemer Harvey took on the project. The first step was to get to know Ossher, her personal style, and her story.
Siemer Harvey credits her life experiences for helping her succeed. “Because I’m an older student,” she said, “I come to the table with a different skill set.”
In addition to her design and sewing skills, Siemer Harvey said, the most important skill was one that can’t be taught in a class—empathy.
“I have my own [medical] issues,” said Siemer Harvey, with a nod to her service dog, Radar. “Once we talked about what was going on with each of us, there was this common bond, because your life forever changes.”
Through this shared connection and compassion, Siemer Harvey established a space where Ossher was comfortable sharing her struggles with finding clothing that fit her new body.
From left: Shantell Reid, assistant professor; Lisa Siemer Harvey, student; and Erin Habes, lecturer, from Buffalo State University’s fashion and textile technology program.
“It really made me think about how low a woman’s self-esteem can be,” Siemer Harvey said of the project experience. “We’re always associated with breasts, which is unfortunate, but it’s a hard world to go back into after you’ve had something like [a double mastectomy] done.”
For her design, Siemer Harvey created a floral shirt with strategic gathering that causes the fabric around the chest to flow out, giving the illusion of a bust. She paired this shirt with a pair of brightly colored wide-leg pants, adding a belt made from a repurposed leather jacket to complete the look. The clothes were made to fit Ossher’s exact body measurements. Siemer Harvey spent many hours over the course of the summer doing multiple fittings, sewing, re-sewing, and, most importantly, getting to know her client.
“Lisa listened to Danielle. She heard things that weren’t even said,” said Reid, who worked closely with Siemer Harvey throughout the project. “She actually put her in colors she never would have chosen for herself. When Danielle put that garment on, that was her superpower. She stood up taller and her confidence glowed.”
The culmination of the project was a photo shoot at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, with Ossher and the contest winners proudly displaying their new looks. Siemer Harvey and Reid were in attendance to experience the production aspect of a fashion shoot.
“It was cool for them to see that side of things,” said Habes, whose expertise lies in photo shoot production and fashion styling. “How things come together with hair, makeup, and wardrobe.”
Each year, the FTT Department’s annual fashion show includes a special section focused on a theme or topic that students design to fit. The topic chosen is meant to spark a conversation and raise awareness through fashion and design. The next Runway, scheduled for April 20, 2024, will explore “True Delusion,” a look at human identity and mental wellness.