UNION SQUARE — The annual ritual of bathing suit shopping — squeezing sun-starved bodies into barely there swimwear under the unforgiving glare of fluorescent lighting — is something few women eagerly anticipate.
But for those who have battled breast cancer, the process can be especially trying.
For them, finding the ideal swimsuit is no longer about simply looking good, but about masking scars, hiding chemo ports and giving reconstructed breasts a more natural look.
Those were the women Patricia Brett had foremost in mind when she launched her line of swimwear in 2010, a company she has named Veronica Brett in honor of her aunt who died from the disease.
"I’m trying to provide a fashion brand to the woman who's had breast cancer," Brett, 48, explained in her office near Union Square. "To keep it fresh so that it is consistent with what everyone else is wearing at the beach."
It’s swimwear that all women can wear, added Brett, who lives on the Upper East Side with her husband and 11-year-old son. "It just specifically meets the needs of women who’ve had breast surgery."
Brett has never been diagnosed with breast cancer, but she probably would have if she didn’t take drastic preventive measures.
She lost three aunts to the disease. Her sister is a 15-year survivor, and both she and her niece elected to have bilateral mastectomies because they tested positive for the BRCA1 gene, which gave them an 85-percent chance of developing the disease at some point in their lifetimes.
Brett opted to have reconstructive surgery done but said her new breasts "look kind of fake" in swimsuits. Neither her sister nor her niece had reconstruction and instead wear breast forms, which present a whole new problem in swimwear, she said.
So after a road trip in 2007 with her sister and niece, during which many complaints were aired about the existing options among matronly, mastectomy-friendly swimsuits, Brett decided she would try to design one herself.
Brett's background is in architecture — designing buildings, not bikinis. Still, she sat down with her sketchbook and started penciling a rough business plan and a wraparound one-piece.
Brett knew the suit had to cover known scarring spots and have pockets to hold breast forms, but she also made the cuts for the legs a little sexier and the back a little lower and tried to show as much cleavage as possible.
"I actually made the first swimsuit myself, which was kind of comical," she recalled with a laugh.
When she finished, she had her sister, Regina, try on her slapped-together first attempt.
"My sister burst into tears," Brett recalled. "She’s like, 'Oh my God, this is the sexiest thing I’ve worn in 15 years.'"
For the next two and a half years, Brett tested different designs and put a business together. She launched her company in 2010 with three one-piece suits in two colors.
Now, Brett is in the thick of designing her 2013 collection, which will include six one-piece suits, three bikinis and two tankinis, plus accessories. Her swimwear is sold in 17 stores in the U.S., Canada and Switzerland, and she recently landed a deal with Soma, the intimate apparel offshoot of Chico’s.
Brett’s suits retail between $185 and $240, which some have complained is expensive. But Brett said she manufactures in the U.S. and uses high-end Italian swim fabric and a super-soft lining so that it's comfortable against the skin.
"I don’t feel like you should scrimp on something like that," Brett explained.
And, she added, the majority of her customers agree. Brett said she gets emails from 20-plus-year cancer survivors who tell her Veronica Brett swimsuits make them feel sexy again.
Those customers also provide helpful feedback, encouraging Brett to design suits with higher necklines to mask chemo ports and to add accessories like sarongs and caftans into her line.
"It’s totally independent of age. It’s about wanting to feel good about yourself again," Brett said. "It’s swimwear that empowers women, rather than objectifying them."