Auckland fashion designer Kerrin Osborne was at her sewing machine when she got the call that would change her life forever.
“All I could hear was crying and I immediately went into shock,” she recalls. Hearing her usually upbeat mum Glenda crying and knowing she had gone to get a mammogram, Kerrin (35) knew instantly that the worst had happened – breast cancer.
Less than two weeks later, Glenda (59) had a mastectomy. Shocked and distraught by the diagnosis, she desperately hoped that after the surgery she would be given the all-clear. But, devastatingly, it wasn’t to be. Doctors found a tiny 3mm tumour in her lymph nodes and told Glenda she would also need to have chemotherapy.
“I was devastated,” she tells. Kerrin remembers feeling confused by the news that her mother would have to have the gruelling treatment. “We had just dealt with her diagnosis and surgery, and come out the
other end. Then we heard that news and all those initial feelings returned.”
With no family history of the disease, breast cancer wasn’t something Kerrin had given much thought. “You never think cancer is going to get your family or be in your family. And then it is.”
She struggles to find the words to describe what it was like watching her mum cope with cancer five years ago and the trauma of losing her hair.
“I think the reason it’s so emotional for women to lose their hair is because people look at them differently,” Kerrin tells. “People know you have cancer when you have no hair. You can’t hide you’re sick any more.”
As the chemotherapy treatment began, Glenda shaved her head, but when she searched for a hat, she could only find ones made in “old nana colours and designs”.
“She just looked sick in them,” recalls Kerrin. Eventually, Glenda turned to her daughter and asked if she could make her one.
Fuelled by a desire to make her mother feel beautiful again, Kerrin accepted the challenge. She began by designing some samples and one day Glenda took them along to her oncology session.
Kerrin smiles as she recalls how she received a phone call from her mum to tell her she had better come to the hospital.
“I went down and all the ladies bought every single sample hat that I had made. At that point, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can actually do something with this!’”
Through her mum’s heartache, she discovered a raft of women with a need to feel fashionable and feminine during their darkest days. So she kept sewing and started her company Kaus Hats in late 2011.
For Kerrin, her business isn’t about making money. She talks about her brand with pride, and it’s obvious her feelings stem from a genuine love for people and a desire to make a difference.
She also shares a close relationship with many of her customers. She personally sews each hat and regularly visits women in hospital so they can try them on. Often she will also put together care packages and donate them to the hospital.
“It’s not just about hats. A lot of women just want to talk to me. I’ll go to the hospital and see them, then they’ll be talking about everything in general.”
As well as inspiring Kerrin’s company, her mum’s cancer diagnosis has also brought the pair closer. And having Glenda involved in the business has provided the perfect escape for them both.
“I would talk to her about designs and fabrics, and it would help keep her mind off things,” explains Kerrin. Listening to Glenda, it’s easy to see where her daughter gets her ability to always look at the bright side.
“For me, it was weird because that year was the worst year of my life, but it was also, in a way, the best year. My other daughter got married and pregnant, and Kerrin started this amazing business,” says the proud mother, who has now been cancer-free for five years.
The family has recently had to cope with another illness in their family, with Kerrin’s grandfather suffering from terminal blood cancer, and the young designer admits the health battles have changed her perspective on life.
Instead of putting her savings towards a deposit on a new home, she has decided to train to be a pilot – a lifelong dream. “You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow – that’s why I started flying,” she says, revealing she has also started learning aerobatics and hopes to one day offer flights to women with cancer. And she also dreams about taking her hat brand to the world. “But I think my ultimate goal is to make women feel good about themselves.”