Lots of women we know are happily headed to warmer climates and tropical beaches this week for a little R&R to finish out 2011 and ring in 2012. While we stay put, green with envy and hunkered down in our wool and fleece, we rationalize the bulk and comfort of our layered looks by saying, “Ugh, the thought of putting on a swimsuit after days of overindulging in holiday goodies is frightening.” No matter how accepting you are of your body, flaws and all, swimsuits can be a challenge for even the most confident women. Now consider the depth of that challenge for a woman who has had a mastectomy, since breasts, whether mammoth, perky, droopy, petite, or asymmetrical, are such an integral aspect to the design of swimwear. Woman You Should Know Patricia Brett did more than just contemplate this struggle for other women… it’s her mission to make life in a swimsuit look sexier for breast cancer survivors and pre-vivors.

Patricia is the Designer and Founder of Veronica Brett, a luxury collection of swimwear fashioned especially for breast cancer survivors, women who have had risk-reducing mastectomies and all women who want to look great in a swimsuit again.

Veronica Brett Bandeau Swimsuit

Breast Cancer Survivor, Stefanie LaRue, models the 2010 Veronica Brett collection. Photo courtesy of Michael Larsen, © Larsen & Talbert.

Inspired by her sister, a 13-year breast cancer survivor diagnosed at age 41, and her niece, who at 29 had a risk-reducing bilateral mastectomy, Patricia wanted to give women fashionable, designer level swimwear options for life post-surgery to help them feel confident and sexy all over again. Her brand, which made its debut in Spring 2010, is named Veronica Brett in honor of Patricia’s aunt, Veronica Brett Kelly, who the designer lost to breast cancer 35 years ago.

The Veronica Brett brand philosophy is “LIFE NEVER LOOKED SEXIER”. Their figure-flattering suits accentuate all of a woman’s beautiful features and are designed to solve some of the issues that come about as a result of breast surgery. They are strategically constructed to conceal surgical scars, while still giving a semblance of cleavage. Each style includes interior pockets on both sides that conceal lightweight swim forms and properly fit a reconstructed breast. The pocketing is also ideal for women who may be naturally asymmetrical. Their fully lined suits are made in the USA from the finest Italian swim fabrics that conform with “Öko-Tex Standard 100, Confidence in Textiles” and contain no harmful substances.

All In The Family

Why would a woman with a Master of Architecture degree from Yale want to design swimsuits for breast cancer survivors? The answer to that question is a deeply personal, family matter.

Patricia grew up in Ravenna, Ohio, the youngest girl in a family of eleven children. Her father had the added responsibility of looking after his ten younger siblings. This included his youngest sister Veronica, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41. Patricia went with her father to visit her aunt in the hospital and remembers him bringing her wigs. She knew he was thinking, “If only she could look better she would feel better, and then she’d get better.” Including Veronica, who passed away at age 44, Patricia’s dad lost three of his six sisters to breast cancer, all at young ages.

In February 1998, Patricia’s sister Regina was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41 and underwent the full treatment – mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. The first in her generation of the family, Regina was soon followed by three first cousins, all about Patricia’s age or younger, including two of Veronica’s daughters. Later, more cousins were diagnosed.

As Patricia explains it on the Veronica Brett site, “It turns out that my family carries a genetic mutation that predisposes us to breast and ovarian cancer. The cold hard facts – while there is a 50% chance of having the BRCA1 gene, if you do have it, there is up to an 85% chance of getting breast cancer in your lifetime. And with my family history, it wasn’t ‘if’, it was ‘when'”.

In 2002, four years after her sister Regina’s breast cancer diagnosis, Patricia tested positive for the BRCA1 gene. Of the six girls in her family, only she and Regina carry the gene. In January 2003, at age 39, Patricia opted to eliminate her risk and had a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. Her son had just turned two and she wanted to be around to see him grow up. In May 2007, after a long and difficult decision-making process, Patricia then opted to have her ovaries removed. Patricia explains, “While these measures may seem drastic to some, it was the only way I could insure that breast or ovarian cancer would not prevent me from some day attending my son’s wedding or seeing him graduate from college.”

Inspired Designs

Not long after her ovarian surgery, Patricia joined her sister Regina and her 29 year-old niece Gabe for a girls’ weekend. Gabe, who inherited the BRCA1 gene from her mother, had scheduled her own risk-reducing bilateral mastectomy for December of 2007. Like her mother, she opted not to have reconstruction. While Gabe, a 5′-2″, blond-haired, blue-eyed, tiny, beautiful woman, had made peace with the idea of surgery, she spent the weekend venting, “I’ll have to give away my entire wardrobe!” or “The mastectomy swimsuits are all floral with horrible little skirt bottoms”. It struck Patricia that after everything else breast cancer survivors have to contend with, finding something to wear shouldn’t be yet another challenge.

Patricia arrived back in New York from that trip and began to draw. She joked, “If I can design a building, surely I can design a bra or swimsuit!” Armed with inspiration from her sister and her niece, she set out to create something to help both survivors and pre-vivors (a person like her, who has not been diagnosed with cancer, but has survived the higher risk of cancer) look and feel like a million bucks again.

Deciding where to begin and what to design, in early 2008 Patricia had The Monogram Group, Chicago, conduct an online survey of breast cancer survivors from across the United States. Among the startling findings… of over 400 women surveyed, 0% were satisfied with the post-mastectomy swimsuits on the market. Patricia had her answer.

She made the first swimsuit herself, fashioned from a store-bought pattern that she modified to add coverage where needed, cut it a bit sexier where she could and added pockets that allowed for a breast form. The next time her sister came to New York for a visit, Patricia asked her to try it on. Almost immediately Regina’s eyes lit up, she burst into tears and started twirling around like a little girl. “This is the sexiest thing I’ve worn in ten years!” she declared.

Since then, Patricia has worked with more patternmakers, sample sewers and factories than she dares to admit. It’s a technical, highly-engineered solution that requires the right level of expertise. But she kept at it, knowing that, if she was successful, one day women all over the world would have the opportunity to twirl around like her sister and feel fabulous all over again. Her inspired vision became a reality in 2010.

Veronica Brett in Harper's Bazaar Oct 2011In an October 2011 interview with Harper’s Bazaar Patricia said she hears from satisfied – and emotional – customers all the time. “I get these sweet e-mails where they tell me, ‘I got your swimsuit and I just burst into tears. I haven’t felt this way in 23 years.’ And you think, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s just a swimsuit.’ That’s what keeps me going.”

Veronica Brett isn’t just about selling swimwear and helping women feel great in a swimsuit again. The brand is committed to helping to find a cure to end breast cancer and to supporting women currently battling the disease by doing its part in giving back. 10% of the full retail price of each Veronica Brett swimsuit sold on-line is donated to one of the members of their affiliate program.