A childhood tragedy had driven celebrity fashion designer Camilla Franks into creating the ‘beautiful life’ she’d always craved. Then her world was turned upside down yet again…
You might not have heard of 44-year-old Australian fashion designer Camilla Franks, but you’ll recognise her work. Her signature kaftans and boho maxi dresses – a flamboyant riot of print and colour – are a favourite with celebrities including Beyoncé, Oprah, Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson and supermodel Miranda Kerr.
Dubbed the ‘Kaftan Queen’, over the past 16 years Camilla has grown her eponymous label from a single store on Sydney’s Bondi Beach into an international, multimillion-pound empire. With 22 stores to her name (in the UK you’ll find her boho-luxe designs in the swankiest department stores: Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges) and a £2 million home in Sydney, it might seem like a charmed life, but for all her success Camilla has been hit with some devastating curveballs.
The first came when she was 17 and had just finished school. ‘We lived in a beautiful beachside neighbourhood called Watsons Bay in the eastern suburbs of Sydney,’ she says. ‘Growing up, it was like having our own mermaid’s playground. My younger brother Ben and I would spend all day exploring.’
One afternoon, 14-year-old Ben was playing on Watsons Bay’s clifftops when he fell. His sudden death left Camilla stunned and she shut down emotionally. ‘I don’t think I processed my grief at all. I buried my feelings and it wasn’t until later that I realised how unhealthy that was.’
Instead of facing her grief, she threw herself into work. ‘I felt like I had to live my life for two people,’ she says. Trying various careers, first in events planning, then advertising, she moved on to acting. ‘Mainly really bad theatre,’ she recalls. ‘I’d torture my friends with awful three-hour Shakespeare performances with no interval. I realised I wasn’t going to be receiving an Academy Award any time soon.’ But people did love the costumes that she created from vintage saris and kimonos. It was the catalyst for the launch of Camilla, the fashion label, in 2003.
Within a year, her first collection was picked up by Australian department store David Jones (the Aussie equivalent of Harrods). That early success ignited her ambition. ‘I had a dream for global domination: I was fearless and persistent.’ The grafting paid off, as the label went from strength to strength. But inside, she was falling apart.
‘I was running the business like a crazy woman. Work was my Band-Aid – it was a way not to feel anything. I had absolutely no balance in life. Of course, it was a recipe for a breakdown.’
By 36, she was burnt out. ‘I had a complete spiritual, emotional and mental breakdown,’ she says. ‘All those painful emotions about my brother’s death, which I had compartmentalised for almost 20 years, finally hit me. I took a few weeks out of the business to really feel my trauma, so that I could start my healing process.’
A combination of counselling, yoga, meditation and journaling (‘all my hippie s**t’, as she calls it) slowly helped Camilla get back on track. ‘You have to acknowledge your feelings and honour them, no matter how scary or dark they are. You need to shine a light on them. Grief never leaves you, but I learned how I could live with it.’
Over the next eight years, with a healthier mindset, Camilla thrived personally and professionally. Business boomed, her own celebrity grew as magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar featured her work, and she got engaged to her long-term partner
JP Jones, a Welsh musician and artist, on New Year’s Eve in 2016. The following year she was pregnant, aged 41.
‘My life was looking pretty beautiful. I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. I loved the feeling of being pregnant and growing another being inside me. I felt like Wonder Woman.’ In January 2018, her daughter Luna was born. ‘Holding her in my arms for the first time was an out-of-body experience. There’s a connection that’s unfathomable. It’s an emotion so deep and primal.’
In typical Camilla style, when Luna was just eight weeks old, ‘I tucked her in my arms and off we went travelling around Australia for a month. We went into the rainforest, to the Great Barrier Reef, explored the outback.’ All with a newborn! For a nomadic spirit like Camilla it was the most natural thing in the world. ‘Honestly, it was an incredible trip, touring my motherland.’ Far from feeling overwhelmed, having Luna by her side made her feel ‘more grounded than ever; like I’d shifted into a new gear. For the first time in my life I felt like I’d nailed it.’
Then Camilla noticed a lump in her left breast. She went to her doctor but, assuming it was mastitis (a common condition where breast tissue becomes inflamed in breastfeeding mothers), she wasn’t particularly worried.
‘The afternoon that the doctors called me in to discuss the test results, I knew something was wrong. My heart was pounding out of my chest. When I heard the words, “You’ve got stage three breast cancer”, my whole world came crashing down.
‘I felt a terror to my core; to my bones. I was helpless. So powerless and scared. All I could think of was Luna. She was three months old and I didn’t know if I was going to live or die. I realised how much I wanted, needed, to live. It frightened me that it might not be an option.’
Camilla was given two weeks to decide on which course of treatment to take. ‘Suddenly
I had to become CEO of my own body. I felt like I was on a deadline to save my own life.’ The treatment plan she chose was ‘hard core’: six months of chemotherapy (‘my oncologist called it the bazooka of chemo’) followed by a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, a nine-hour surgical procedure.
What should have been a blissful time – bonding with baby Luna and adjusting to life as new parents with JP – became a gruelling physical and mental battle. Of all the painful, tearful days that followed Camilla’s diagnosis, one of the most heartbreaking was when she was told she had to stop breastfeeding Luna.
‘I was not ready to stop. I had a primal yearning to breastfeed. It seemed so unfair and cruel. I couldn’t bear to see other mothers breastfeeding. There were awful times when
I would be too sick to play with Luna, or I was on the chemo ward and I couldn’t be with her; I didn’t want her to see me like that.’
Camilla turned to yoga and meditation to help her cope. ‘I knew I was in for the fight
of my life, so I had to focus on keeping my body and mind strong. Yoga and meditation became my non-negotiables, no matter how sick I became.’
New parenthood can test any relationship, let alone with a life-threatening illness looming over you, but Camilla says the enormity of their situation only strengthened her bond with JP. ‘You realise how much unnecessary noise you put in your lives. All that mattered that first year was fighting to keep me alive and making sure we were the best parents we could be at the same time.’
Camilla’s friends, her ‘amazing tribe of warrior women and men’, rallied too. ‘They were the ones who cried with me, held me when I just needed holding. The ones who came to my doctor’s appointments, spoke for me when I was too terrified to speak, asked questions I couldn’t. They held me together through my worst moments,’ she says.
‘It was the darkest, most uncertain time in my life and strangely there was so much beauty in it; it was filled with love and kindness. It gave me so much to fight for.’
During chemo, Camilla’s trademark waist-length chestnut hair – always worn in loose, boho waves – started falling out in clumps. ‘It was quite traumatic. My hair had defined me for so long. I thought, “I’m going to be bald, it’s going to be horrific.” But when I shaved my head and looked in the mirror, I was stripped back to my most raw, my most vulnerable, my most authentic. And I found that beautiful.’
Harder to accept was losing her breasts. The night before her double mastectomy, Camilla took a shower. ‘I remember just holding them and saying goodbye and tears running down my face. They were not perfect, but they were mine, and knowing that I would never touch them ever again… it’s like you’re losing a limb.’
After the surgery there were weeks in hospital where she wasn’t able to move, and then months when she couldn’t pick up Luna and hold her while her body recovered and her scars began to heal. ‘But absolutely nothing, not even cancer, was going to take away my bond with Luna,’ she says. ‘And ultimately, she saved my life. I wouldn’t have noticed this lump had I not been breastfeeding her.’
Incredibly, throughout her treatment Camilla continued to work. ‘For me, it’s my happy place. It was my escape from cancer.’ In 2018 she designed two collections, produced a huge catwalk show that closed Australian Fashion Week and launched a charity project, Butterfly Effect, helping girls in Eastern India to stay in school and say no to childhood marriage. ‘It ended up being one of the company’s biggest years ever,’ she says proudly.
Now Luna is two years old. ‘I love seeing her unique character develop,’ says Camilla. ‘She’s so cheeky and funny and curious.’ Camilla’s hair is starting to grow back and she has just unveiled her latest collection, Mirror Mirror. It will be sold exclusively online during the coronavirus pandemic, a new challenge but one she feels emotionally equipped for.
‘Everything I’ve been through has made me live totally in the present. I’m grateful for every moment. If you start fast-forwarding, that’s when the fear comes. With coronavirus, lots of people are asking, “Where are we going to be in three months, six months?” I think that makes it more traumatic. You never know what’s around the corner but if you can stay present it takes away some of that pressure.’
Camilla’s cancer journey is still ongoing. ‘I closed one chapter of the story when I had the mastectomy,’ she says. But as her breast cancer is a result of the BRCA1 gene mutation, she has an increased chance of developing ovarian cancer in the future, so it’s recommended she has her ovaries removed. ‘It has brought up a lot of sadness and anger. I resent the fact that cancer has potentially taken away the opportunity of having another baby. I know that removing my ovaries is a power move I need to make to protect the beautiful life that I have with Luna and JP. But I’m just not there yet,’ she says. ‘I’m hoping for a miracle. If these past two years have taught me anything it’s that you never know what’s going to happen: life is one beautiful, crazy, terrifying rollercoaster.’
Interview: Hanna Woodside