Cumbrian Alopecia Sufferer Inspired to Start Business to Help Others

Article from In-Cumbria Magazine
Thursday 12 May 2016

Vanessa Cowan, 40, developed alopecia universalis two years ago and began to lose her hair. The condition, she says, was brought on by the stress of her job at DEFRA in Workington. Within three months she’d lost all her body hair.

When she discovered there was no support or advice available in west Cumbria, and very little in the whole of the county, she decided to do something about it. She said:”I found you can get vouchers from the NHS towards hair replacement products. The problem was there were no suppliers in West Cumbria. I was feeling disheartened and knew I had to do something so I decided to become a wig supplier myself. I went on a six week Britain’s Energy Coast business start-up course and got Cumbria Growth Hub funding, which paid for a business advisor to help me and also went towards the cost of setting up my website.

“My main goal was to become a local NHS supplier. The patient liaison panel for North Cumbria University Hospitals Trust had been campaigning to get a local supplier for 10 years. With all the checks, inspections and goalpost-moving it took me 18 months to get it, but I have and the liaison panel are really, really pleased. It means people in my situation or who have lost their hair through cancer treatment have someone local to turn to.”

After training with Trevor Sorbie on his ‘My New Hair' course in London, Miss Cowan opened Glamorous Butterfly, in Senhouse Street,  Whitehaven, to offer others the help she has not been able to find.

Her turnover has grown well beyond the first-year projection in the business plan, fed by a clear demand for her services. She said:”Hair loss for women has a huge psychological impact and there’s just not enough research into it. My clients are women and children. Men do contact me but they tend to adjust more easily than women. Male baldness is more socially acceptable. So, I provide wigs, but only go for the best available, the best in the world, whether they be synthetic or fully custom made, natural hair wigs which can cost more than £6,000 and which I can cut and dye to suit each individual.

"But that’s only part of what I do. My main role is to give help, support and advice. My clients are all ages. Some have a genetic condition, some lose their hair through stress, as I did, and many of the referrals I get from the NHS are for women undergoing chemotherapy. I try to help them to get their life back. The psychological effects can be deep rooted. Some people never get over losing their hair. In some cases it can lead to suicide attempts. 

"I visit people in their own homes if they’re not well enough to come to me or they just don’t want to go out. Some women feel they can’t go out in public, they’re afraid to be in a crowd. There are many, many people with the condition. I see clients from across Britain. There’s a woman coming to see me from Jersey and I have clients in the United States where we speak via Skype and I send them products.

“I’m a bit of a rarity. Only two per cent of people who run businesses like mine suffer the same condition so there’s a connection between me and other sufferers. The big problem is that it’s seen as a cosmetic problem but it’s actually an autoimmune problem. Seventy-five per cent of sufferers develop other autoimmune conditions such as ME or MS or rheumatoid arthritis. This needs to be recognised.”

Vanessa Cowan can be contacted at Glamorous Butterfly on 07889 224019 or

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