Isabella Harte from Skibbereen spent years living with a crippling illness that left her bed-bound for long periods. But her determination not to allow it destroy her life, along with her passion for fashion, saw her recover and launch an online design business
BY EMMA CONNOLLY
A YOUNG woman from Skibbereen fought her way back from a debilitating illness to launch her own fashion design business.
And as well as the support of her family, she’s crediting crucial help she got from her community to getting to where she is today.
Isabella Harte, aged 18, is an e-business student in the West Cork College of Commerce and also runs her own online clothes shop.
But not that long ago, being in such an exciting and promising place seemed like an impossible dream to her, as she explains.
‘When I was four I developed Stevens-Johnson Syndrome which is an allergic reaction to a virus. I was seriously ill in hospital. My immune system was badly affected and left prone to coughs, colds, earaches etc me right through my childhood.
‘Then in 1st year of secondary school due to me over doing sport I developed a flu-like virus from which I could not recover. It felt like I persistently had a really bad flu – no energy, brain fog, vertigo, severe joint pain, respiratory systems.’
As a result Isabella, the second eldest in a family of five, was more or less bed-ridden and unable to attend school for long periods of time.
She remembers the stretch from 2014 to 2017 in particular as a really dark time in her life: ‘As well as feeling very sick, I felt hopeless and lonely. I was so scared that I would never get better. Although a lot of the time I felt too sick to even have any emotion except hopelessness.
‘When the weather was warmer I improved and was able to go out a little and attend school, maybe one or two days a week, but only for a couple of hours before my mom had to come to collect me and bring me home so that I could rest for the remainder of the day. I also had desperate brain fog which meant I could not think, this was so embarrassing, especially at school.
‘But, thankfully, my school (both St Joseph’s Girls School and Skibbereen Community School) were supportive and allowed me to attend when I could and they never put pressure on me to study or turn in homework; they assured me my health was the most important thing.’
Eventually, after lots of tests and seeing various consultants, Isabella was diagnosed with Post Viral Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, also known as ME.
Isabella said that throughout it all her mum Siobhan was amazing.
‘She used to make me get up and she would take me for nice spins to chat about my feelings. She would always assure me that I would get better and that she would make sure of that.
'She brought me to Lough Hyne and we’d sit in the car just chatting and I would cry and just get all of my sadness out that way.
‘On good days I might have enough energy to put a coat on over my pyjamas and she would bring me out for nice food. She was determined to keep me talking and to keep me positive, because the psychological effects of CFS are awful – feeling depressed, desperate and hopeless because the sickness was relentless and doctors couldn’t tell me when or how I’d get better. I felt so alone and so, so, so sad that I couldn’t go to school to be with my friends or meet with them. Thankfully, my friends and I would meet up whenever I felt able and they always included me as much as possible.’
It was while Isabella was bed or couch-bound that she developed her business idea. It was partly born from her love of design and partly from her panicking that she wouldn’t be able to join the conventional workforce when she was older.
‘I decided that I would have to find a way of making a living for myself. I think I am naturally a very competitive and ambitious person. I also felt that I desperately wanted to make this tough time mean something in my life, and to give my life purpose. I was determined that this illness would never destroy my whole life. So with this attitude I decided to turn to the one thing I have always loved, the one thing I know loads about and that was fashion.
‘So I would literally spend bedridden days researching how to set up my own business. I knew that I could actually do so much from my bed on my laptop. This was around 2015, my parents brought me into the West Cork Hotel to meet some entrepreneurs attending Digital Week where I met with representatives from Google, Ludgate, and financial institutions – who answered loads of my questions about setting up my own business. A lady from Ludgate introduced me to a web designer and a solicitor, all of whom would go on to help me loads at a much-reduced rate.
‘Bit by bit, my idea to open my online clothing shop called KissMyLips.com (I just loved how that sounded!) was becoming a reality. Each day I was forced to overcome my illness in order to meet deadlines, meet a solicitor, a banker or my web designer. I began feeling purposeful and I was feeling excited and motivated.’
Having said that, Isabella is in no doubt that following a specialised diet and taking homeopathic remedies were also crucial to her recovery.
‘The nutritionist I attend regularly is Majella O’Neill, Skibbereen. Majella took a huge interest in my case from the beginning and devised a special dietary plan for me and specific supplements to fight the viruses and build up my immune system. She continues to be a huge support and I know her work is hugely helpful in keeping me well. So, too, has been our family homoeopath Claire Hurley, also from Skibbereen. I am so grateful to these therapists and their work.’
Since launching KissMyLips.com, she’s developed her own ‘label collection’ which are her own designs.
‘I have several manufacturers from all over the world who make my designs depending on style/fabric and so on. This is the direction I want my business to go in and I ensure my fashion is sourced from sound ethical manufacturers. I want my dresses to last, to be recycled, upcycled or passed onto others!’
Isabella is in good health now but has to be mindful of it always.
‘I still get very bad vertigo and a few other CFS symptoms but I know I’ll grow out of this. Some days I have to really take a step back and just do nothing – to ensure I don’t go backwards. But I honestly believe that the purpose and motivation I felt while setting it up helped me on my healing journey.’
• See kissmylips.com for more.