Susan Beausang runs a hand through her hair. It’s short and wavy, a sandy-brown pixie cut with flyaway ends.
“It grew back a little over a year ago,” Beausang says. “I keep it short on purpose because I don’t want to get too attached. It’s already falling out again. It’s the tease that’s worse.”
She pinches a small tuft and frowns.
“It’s happening a little bit at a time. You see here and here?” Beausang asks, reaching around the back of her head. “I’m fighting four or five bald spots. Eventually, I’ll shave it off because it’ll get so bad.”
In the backroom of Beausang’s downtown office, her husband, Jack, and assistant, Jillian, mill around stacks of Rubbermaid bins, housing hundreds of fabrics, all of them labeled and named by Beausang.
The 4women.com office contains more than 300 different fabrics with names such as “Fairy Tails,” “Angelina” and “Madame Butterfly,” which are folded neatly into containers stacked six high.
After only a year-and-a-half in this space, Beausang, a Bayview Heights resident, has outgrown the space.
“Jack gets a kick out of all the names I come up with,” she says, rattling off her favorite fabric name, “Make Me Smile.” “The names are memorable and I have fun inventing them.”
Beausang, 60, has come a long way. Well-dressed and athletic, she is gregarious and warm, a good listener and a good storyteller. A former Philadelphia stockbroker with a fashion merchandising degree, Beausang is forthright about the struggles that led her from relative seclusion to designing trendy headscarves for women suffering from medical hair loss.
Likewise, she speaks candidly about her mother and her sisters’ battles with breast cancer, her decision to have prophylactic surgery after learning that she, too, carried the gene and her trepidation about moving to Sarasota in 2003 after her husband had been recruited by a local bank — only six months after Beausang lost all her hair to an aggressive form of alopecia.
“I came to Sarasota with a slightly deflated self-esteem,” Beausang says. “Alopecia is a disease of emotions. Once I found out it was a permanent condition, I went from being a very active, outgoing person to someone who was afraid to leave the house.”
Beausang’s form of the disorder, alopecia universalis, came on rapidly. In three months she had lost all her hair, including her eyelashes, which devastated her. But, as much as Beausang hated being bald, she hated wearing a wig more. Wigs were itchy and heavy. They shifted and looked fake — even the expensive ones. If someone so much as blinked in her direction when she was wearing a wig, she was convinced her baldness had been revealed.
“My options were limited,” Beausang says. “Most headwear just made my baldness more obvious.”
If she went out bald, though, people started asking questions. Was she sick? Undergoing chemotherapy?
Though alopecia affects more than 4.5 million people in the United States, it is still a relatively little-known disease.
“In seven years I never found a good answer,” Beausang says of the endless gawking and wrong assumptions. “It was such an intrusion of personal space.”
Before her hair fell out, she would wear it shoulder-length with frosted streaks. It was an extension of her personality and complemented her cool wardrobe. Faced with the loss of this accessory, Beausang fell back on her fashion merchandising degree and began brainstorming ways in which she could leave her house and still feel attractive. Tying on a bright scarf seemed like the best, most natural solution.
“It was just so freeing. I didn’t feel isolated from the world and I didn’t feel bald,” Beausang says.
The more she wore her scarves out, the more women started commenting on how beautiful and hip she looked. Beausang quickly realized her scarves could just as easily lift the spirits of other women suffering from medical hair loss.
She researched manufacturers, fabrics, colors and trends. She pored over “Vogue” and “Women’s Wear Daily,” choosing prints that were versatile, neutral and in style.
After a year of pattern development, Beausang was ready to sell the BeauBeau, a headscarf geared toward total coverage, sewn using a special lining that forms to the head, inspired by and named after Beausang.
She set up a Web site — www.4women.com — and pitched the product to cancer boutiques and hospital gift shops. When Hollywood starlets turned up in the pages of “People” magazine wearing headscarves, Beausang was thrilled.
She started writing a blog about living with alopecia and linked the stories to her company’s Web site. As orders started pouring in, so did the personal phone calls and e-mails.
“Hair loss creates such strange emotions in women,” Beausang says. “We’re afraid to express our true feelings because we’re afraid we’ll be dismissed as vain.”
She recently expanded her merchandise line to include headbands, embellished bridal scarves and tote bags that contain small blankets, first-aid kits, sleep caps and thermal snack bags tailored to women traveling to and from cancer treatments.
“Alopecia led me to do something really rewarding,” Beausang says. “I think it was a message telling me,
‘You’re not meant to relax just yet.’”
Scarf it up
Susan Beausang and downtown merchant Kelly Augustyniak, owner of Kelietza boutique, will host Sarasota’s first Scarf It Up fashion show and fundraiser 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4, at TPC Prestancia, in Palmer Ranch. The event will raise money to fund a scarf bank at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, which will provide BeauBeau scarves and other headwear for female cancer patients.
Fashion designers Vera Wang, Lila Rose, Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan have all donated fabrics for the event. For more information, call 361-2408 or visit www.4women.com.