KC Cares: Bra Couture KC dresses to the nines for local cancer patients

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Heather Dickman with Bobby Bell. // Courtesy Bra Couture KC

Strutting down a runway wearing a glitzy outfit and glammed up to the nines is a pretty big confidence booster—especially if you’ve experienced a mastectomy. Bra Couture KC puts survivors front and center by raising funds to help local cancer patients.

“Bra Couture KC is an uplifting emotional experience for the models themselves… she’s lost her hair, she’s lost her boobs. She’s walking with scars, and her whole entire family has gone through the fear of losing her life to breast cancer together. So this is a way of celebrating that survival for her and her family,” says Bra Couture KC Executive Director Sharon Butler Payne.

Making the nonprofit successful hasn’t always been easy.

“We’ve struggled to overcome the word ‘bra’ in the title of our organization. Most people think of a bra as a piece of lingerie, or they think it’s an exotic dance show or a Victoria’s Secret modeling event,” Payne says. “We’re very, very particular about the design of the bras and how that model is styled. Her survivor story is told in a video before she comes out on the runway, so the designs of the bras are very classy and in very good taste to pay tribute to what she’s gone through.”

It’s not just the outfits they sell at their annual auction. Each comes with a package that includes amenities like restaurant meals, helicopter rides, and vacation stays. Payne says most go for $7,000 to $12,000.

Payne started the organization 12 years ago. A breast cancer survivor herself, she’d seen a similar event that her daughter-in-law, also a survivor, had done in Texas and felt inspired. She went to the University of Kansas Cancer Center with the idea.

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Liz Cahill with Alex Gordon and Nick Kenn. // Courtesy Bra Couture KC

“What really caused me to become so committed is when KU came back and said they wanted this event to raise money for uninsured and underinsured cancer patients,” Payne says.

That call came when she was in her doctor’s office figuring out her second reconstructive surgery.

“I just could not imagine facing the fear of the disease and all of the surgeries that are attached to it, all of the surgical things that can go wrong and have to be redone. I just couldn’t imagine doing that without insurance,” she says.

It’s been wildly successful. In the first year, she hoped to raise $20,000 and ended up with $90,000. She’s received support from the Royals and the Chiefs, in addition to many other companies in the metro. This year’s event raised $540,000 with a sold-out crowd of 1,200 attendees. 

That money buys a lot of things for cancer patients. It can mean a wig, lymphedema garments, liquid food, shower chairs—anything a patient might need.

It also pays for preventative health screenings, such as mammograms, at places like Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center. 

And it’s not just breast cancer survivors who participate in or benefit from Bra Couture KC’s efforts. Any cancer patient can be involved with them.

The funds now reach beyond KU patients. There are also locations at University Health and Research Medical Center’s Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute. They’ll expand to a new location at Liberty Hospital in 2023. Many patients in these locations are 200% below the federal poverty level.

“A lot of individuals in the underserved community have hourly jobs, and therefore, they don’t get paid if they are too ill to work. We started paying rent and utilities and providing food and gas cards,” Payne says.

Jennifer Jones was at a doctor’s appointment at Research Medical Center when the friend who accompanied her saw a flyer for Bra Couture KC. She got a $400 gas card and a $100 grocery card—things she definitely needed.

Jones, who lives in the Harrisonville area, had previously had a mastectomy and dealt with a few recurrences.

“With my experience before, it’s so, so difficult to find assistance whenever you’re in a situation like that. People get that diagnosis, and it turns their whole life upside down,” Jones says. “To be able to have an organization like this—I mean, the director of the organization personally reached out to me, and we talked on the phone for probably an hour that day. For her to take that time, I think it’s just awesome to have somebody like that in your corner.”

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Lacey Fisher. // Courtesy Bra Couture KC

Jones will share her story in a video during next year’s event.

The glamor of the runway event for the big fundraiser comes from many artists and designers, some local and some not. Payne says they get several of the outfits from the University of Central Missouri’s fashion department. She’d love to get even more Kansas City-based designers involved.

To make it all happen, she needs lots of volunteers to set everything up and help the event run smoothly. Specific volunteer opportunities will go up on bracouturekc.com in January or February for the 2023 event.

Categories: Culture