Patricia Brett, Designer and Founder
These three little words might be enough to satisfy most people for a lifetime. For me, they simultaneously signaled the end of one journey and the start of a new one. In the process, I learned that there is real truth to the old saying "everything comes full circle."
I grew up in Ravenna, OH, the youngest girl in a family of 11 children. My father, the oldest son in a family of ten, had the added responsibility of looking after his siblings. This included his youngest sister Veronica, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41. I went with him to visit her in the hospital and remember him bringing her wigs. I knew he was thinking, "If only she could look better she would feel better, and then she’d get better.” Sadly that wasn’t to be the case. Including Veronica, who passed away at age 44, my dad lost three of his six sisters to breast cancer, all at young ages. I always knew, even as a child, that breast cancer was somehow "in the family". I wouldn’t realize just how much until many years later.
In February 1998, my sister Regina was diagnosed with breast cancer – at age 41. She had to undergo the full treatment – mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. The first in my generation, she was soon followed by three first cousins, all about my age or younger, including two of Veronica’s daughters. Later, more cousins were diagnosed, two with breast cancer and one with ovarian cancer.
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 early 2002, I tested positive for the BRCA1 gene. Of the six girls in our family, only my sister Regina and I carry the gene. I always knew I was like my father. The person from whom I inherited the genes for blue eyes, long skinny legs and the hard work ethic, passed along to me a genetic mutation for breast cancer. Luckily, he never knew this himself, having passed away before our discovery.
After a whole summer spent worrying about whether or not I had breast cancer, followed by surgical biopsies (all negative!) I decided to eliminate my risk. So, in January 2003, I had a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. I was 39. My son had just turned two and I knew I needed to be around to see him grow up. Four years later, in May 2007, after a long and difficult decision-making process, I had my ovaries removed. 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 (he’s just turned 9!).
Strangely enough it was a wedding, or more specifically, Regina’s visit to New York in search of a dress for her daughter’s wedding, that started my wheels turning. She wanted something beautiful, sexy and elegant, which could also accommodate her thick-strapped bra and breast forms (she calls them “Thelma and Louise”). We scoured all of Manhattan and found nothing. She ended up wearing the same simple, black, tank-style column dress she had worn to countless other events. It just struck me, after everything else breast cancer survivors have to contend with, finding something to wear shouldn’t be yet another challenge.
Then, in October 2007, not long after my ovarian surgery, I joined Regina and her 29 year-old daughter 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 that year. Like her mother, she opted not to have reconstruction. For perspective, this was my 5’-2”, blond-haired, blue-eyed, tiny, beautiful, recently married niece who wore cute little camisoles with colorful bra straps peeking out! While she 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”. You get the picture.
I came back to New York, and that Monday morning pulled out my sketchbook and began to draw. At the same time, I drafted a rough business plan with the (admittedly) unglamorous working title ‘Fashions for Women – Post Mastectomy’. I joked, “If I can design a building, surely I can design a bra or swimsuit?!” After all, I did have a Master of Architecture degree from Yale! Armed with inspiration from my sister and my niece, I set out to create something to help both survivors and pre-vivors (a person like me, 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, in early 2008, I 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. I had my answer.
I made the first swimsuit myself, fashioned from a store-bought pattern that I modified to add coverage where needed, cut it a bit sexier where I could and added pockets that allowed for a breast form. It was totally crude – the suit barely held together, the leg seams and armholes weren’t even finished.
The next time my sister came to New York for a visit, I asked her to try it on. Almost immediately her 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. "This could be the bodice of a dress, a shirt, a body suit…!"
She was thrilled, not only to have a swimsuit in which she felt confident and sexy again, but that I, her little sister, put so much time and effort into creating something that might help her feel better about herself.
Since then, I’ve worked with more patternmakers, sample sewers and factories than I dare to admit. It’s a technical, highly-engineered solution that requires the right level of expertise. But I kept at it, knowing that, if I was successful, one day women all over the world would have the opportunity to twirl around like my sister and feel fabulous all over again.
The brand is named VERONICA BRETT, in honor of my aunt Veronica who we lost to breast cancer 35 years ago. She was beautiful, elegant, intelligent, dignified, and an inspiration. I want every woman who wears a product bearing her name to feel the same way, and to truly believe our philosophy that "LIFE NEVER LOOKED SEXIER".