With a background in finance and marketing, Melanie Gontier worked in the finance industry for almost two decades before launching the MEL brand at the end of a chaotic 2020. But the mother of two boys was neither fazed by the pandemic nor her breast cancer surgeries once she had decided to become an entrepreneur.
When Melanie, or Mel to her friends, was told she had breast cancer for the first time in April 2015, she says she could not help but think: “Was I wearing harmful materials with chemicals rubbing against my skin?” With no family history of breast cancer, she explains the diagnosis came as a shock, but she was more surprised to learn that there weren’t that many low-cost organic lingerie products.
What started out as curiosity reached a defining moment to get tested after reading a Paperjam magazine article on health and cancer. The results of a biopsy confirmed she had early-stage breast cancer and a first operation was carried out to remove the cancerous cells. Surgery stiches exposed the inadequacies of regular lingerie. “You prioritise comfort like never before when there is a 20cm scar under the breast,” Melanie explains. Left with little choice, it suddenly hit her: why was it so complicated to find comfortable and organic cotton lingerie that was soft and vibrant without itchy tags and underwire? This sparked her first eureka moment.
Combining finance and fashion
She explains that exploring the creative industry for the first time required deliberate action. The brand logo was made with the help of her partner Samuel, a graphic designer, she also set up Facebook and Instagram accounts and created an e-commerce website. However, finding a truly certified eco-friendly supplier took a bit longer.
MEL lingerie is made by a Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)-certified supplier in India. Photo: Matic Zorman
She started out searching for a suitable supplier in Europe, but finding the right partner was complicated. Most companies had minimum order requirements and others were just not interested. This influenced her decision to go for a Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)-certified supplier in India, who had received support from Oxfam Belgium. The production cycle also involves using recycled water as part of the dying process, and the residue is used to build houses. Using organic cotton also means there are no harsh chemicals involved in the farming process.
A passion project
At this point, the pieces were finally fitting together and by mid-December 2020, after a second breast surgery and mastectomy, the first production phase began. Working part-time, thanks to a Belgian state complementary self-employed support programme, meant she could focus on MEL on her days off. She says the feedback she receives keeps her motivated adding that “a passion project never feels like work.”
Melanie highlights the general discomfort, limited colour ranges and lack of diverse sizes in many organic lingerie options. From the outset, the MEL brand was created for all women in search of organic, comfortable, colourful underwear that is completely void of microfibres, itchy tags and underwires. MEL currently offers three colour sets in lime iris, white hibiscus and navy daffodil.
A red and yellow colour set is expected to be in the next production batch, with more colours in view. A new set of sizes is also being produced, following feedback she received from plus-sized women. Plans are also in the pipeline to include men’s underwear and other products like leggings, high-waist underwear, and pyjamas. Someday, Melanie says she would like to have little MEL stores similar to the Claire’s brand.