At the age of 17, I came to Paris as a student ambassador and the first thing that I set out to buy was lingerie. After all, the “French look” starts with that first layer: sexy underwear. So, some 25 years later, when I happened upon the boutique l’Embellie and I saw the fab lingerie in the window, I thought, what a great name! l’Embellie translates to “make more beautiful”, and yes, we all feel more beautiful when wearing beautiful lingerie.
As I walked through the door, I realized that this was no ordinary lingerie store. L’Embellie is a cozy, comforting space dedicated to the needs of women with cancer — one of which is lingerie and lounge wear fitted for prostheses. Here, a woman can take her time and feel at home, because in this amazing space, there’s pretty much every accessory that a woman with cancer needs to help her feel beautiful.
The inspiring woman behind this endeavor is Veronique Mengaud. It’s hard to believe that so much charisma and energy can be packaged into one woman who radiates maternal warmth. Veronique took the time between her two jobs caring for women with cancer to meet me in person during this special month, Octobre Rose, or Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in France. She shared her moving story with INSPIRELLE to explain why she is fully committed to making women with cancer feel beautiful.
Will you share with us your personal story about why you created Embellie Boutique?
It was Anne Matalon who pioneered the idea. She wanted to create the space that she dreamed of when she had cancer, a space which was a break from the illness to feel safe and comforted. I met Anne in 2010 when I was working in the hair institute of Gustave Roussy Cancer Center. When Anne left us, she left me this valuable gift. I still manage the hair salon in Gustave Roussy, so my time is divided between l’Embellie and the hospital.
Why is it important for a woman with cancer to continue to feel good about her appearance?
All women need to feel desired, to have sex appeal — it is part of feeling good inside. When a woman is well in her body and well in her head, she gains self-confidence. I truly believe that feeling good about yourself, feeling desired, and having confidence is part of the healing process. It helps women on the path to getting better.
What does your boutique offer to victims of cancer that other Paris stores do not?
When I hear this question I am shocked by the term “victim”. We don’t talk about victims at l’Embellie. Women feel guilty and feel like their illness is their fault, as if they haven’t done something correctly. They feel guilty in regards to their children. They carry a huge weight on their shoulders and an enormous fear.
At l’Embellie, we try to offer EVERYTHING and ANYTHING so the women feel the energy and the support to go on with their lives—so that they go on and fight.
We are not psychologists, but we are trained in coaching and support techniques to reinforce the way we welcome and receive our customers. Sometimes our role is to offer clients the right guidance and advice, especially when matters of intimacy are involved.
There is a transfer of emotions with the customer. Our role is not to give negative empathy but to help stay focused on the need and the solution that can help. We encourage women to take our workshops.
It’s hard for loved one and friends to understand and communicate what a woman feels when she is suffering from cancer. What advice can you give?
It is hard for everyone. Sometimes words can be harmful. Sometimes, it is most important to just be present — a hand on the shoulder, looking the person in the eye, listening to the other and taking into account the person. When we have bad stories, it is often when words have been too hard — even the medical side can be too hard. It is in the “do”, not in the “say” that we help.
Besides special clothing, you offer a selection of wigs, hair pieces and make-up for sensitive skin undergoing treatment. How would you describe your boutique?
Head-to-toe solutions! Some people come for one thing but haven’t thought of something else, so it is important that we have everything to offer. Sometimes the woman is stuck in one area (fixated on one thing), but here she can have a global view, taking into account all of her needs.
Since we have such a variety of products and solutions, we can help the woman who is fixated on one aspect. This is a chance to find the way to help — reducing the expectations of the client by jumping to something else, so she can get satisfaction elsewhere. We often find that offering a solution to a different issue reduces the importance of the fixation.
Can the women who come to your store expect trained staff to meet their special needs?
Yes! Each person on our team has a different profile. One person specializes in sur mesure technical hair solutions. There are full-head wigs and complement capillaires (capillary complements) for women with weak hair growth from receiving hormone therapy. Some women have what is called alopecie suite à un pelade (alopecia, or spot baldness). We can have molds made with natural hair implanted. These molds are glued to the head and can last for one month, then we unglue them, wash them and the scalp and re-glue. This is a re-birth for these women.
We also have a specialist in prostheses. It can take 45 minutes to an hour and a half to have a fitting and there are several different models available.
For lingerie, we offer a range from post-operation cotton bras to beautiful lingerie that helps you feel sexy. We also have customized padded bras, which are a solution to two different breast sizes.
Women also have a selection for sports and homewear outfits with built in padding to provide a nice silhouette. A prosthesis doesn’t feel secure in sports so the brasserie must be integrated and secure; the bra and t-shirt are fitted together.
We also propose ateliers embellie, wellness workshops such as yoga, Shiatsu, acupuncture, reflexology, massage and more.
How did cancer change your outlook on life?
It shows me every day how strong a human being can be. When we see how each of these women draw on their resources inside, when we hear their individual stories, I AM SO IMPRESSED. These women are “someone” She might be unknown, but when she expresses her feelings, each woman has creativity and energy. It gives HOPE for the future. It is not because you have cancer that everything is finished.
We have stories of so many women who have made major changes. It is a révélateur (telltale) of everything you have inside.
There are heavy and difficult moments, and we are here to make them believe in themselves and all their capacities.
This comes from being positive. In the hospital you have to give up pudeur, you lose your privacy and intimacy. And when you have no pudeur, you lose your self-control. In the hospital you are forced to let go, you are caught up in the system, and this makes you suffer. Here, at l’Embellie we can give back some dignity.
October Rose is a month dedicated to supporting women with cancer. You help women every day, so how will this month be different for you?
It is Octobre Rose everyday here! During the month of October we get out of the shop and visit many of the hospitals. We present an exhibit to explain what L’Embellie does. It is very rewarding. There is so much that women with cancer do not know. In the hospital, there is an infirmière d’annonce (the nurse who informs the patient of all the problems and solutions), but many women do not hear all that they are told. They often forget, because the information is overwhelming. For example, women undergoing chemotherapy need to protect their nails; you have to put selisime in the polish. If the patient loses her eyebrows, we can give makeup advice, and we can give advice on lubricants for when they are feeling sexy!
What inspires you in your work and everyday life?
When a woman arrives scared, depressed and sad but goes away with a smile or just a small twinkle in her eye, that makes my day. You feel her energy, the small strength in each woman.
These women have strength, but it is blocked inside. With just a little bit of positive support from our staff, they feel unique, special – this helps them regain confidence.
We don’t give much but the effect is important and a real reward when we can see that effect.