Debra Kimless-Garber wants to get this straight: Breast Shapers should not be confused with the silicone enhancers we fashionistas call chicken cutlets.
They may be fashioned from silicone, too, but the West Chester doctor's invention gives breasts a smooth, round shape, instead of pushing them up for cleavage's sake.
And that's an important distinction, especially for women who have had all, or part, of their breasts removed as part of breast cancer surgery. Even after plastic surgery and reconstruction, many survivors are left with breasts that resemble plateaus rather than rounded peaks. And that doesn't bode well when it comes to clothes, or more important, self-esteem.
"Breast Shapers are like contact lenses for breasts," Kimless-Garber, 50, explained recently from her King of Prussia office. In other words, they hug the entire breast. "They don't make you bigger, they just give you a perkier shape. It gives you back the apex."
Now that you understand what Breast Shapers are, you'll have a better sense of how they fit - pun intended - into this fashion story.
Along with inventing Breast Shapers, Kimless-Garber designed and patented a line of polyrayon spandex compression tanks and T's with built-in bras. The bras, which also can be worn separately and cost $50, feature pockets that line up with the front of the breasts, as opposed to the sides where most cutlets go, so you get a fuller look.
Polyrayon spandex feels soft against sensitive postoperative skin, and provides compression to manage the pain that most breast cancer survivors liken to missing-limb syndrome.
The line is called Red Thread because a red thread is sewn into every shirt and bra for good luck.
"I want to bridge the gap between bra and no bra," Kimless-Garber said of her line, which is available at 20 boutiques nationwide and at www.redthreadbydrdeb.com. "You have the look of a bra but the comfort of not wearing a bra. In other words, this is just shapewear for breasts."
The concept is a good one. With 2.6 million women either diagnosed, in recovery, or surviving from breast cancer in the United States, the idea of shapewear designed especially for breast cancer survivors seems like a no-brainer. The tops - which come in black, white, brown, and turquoise and cost between $54 and $84 - are perfect for layering under jackets and cardigans or just wearing by themselves. They're great as workout wear.
Although the company is only a year old, it has been slow to gain traction. Kimless-Garber, who has sold 1,000 of the shapers and about 3,000 tops, says she has found retailers are afraid to commit to such a niche business in this economy. She has invested $200,000 in the company so far.
"It works well with someone who has had breast cancer," said Barbra Robbins, a breast cancer survivor and owner of Mykonos in Glen Mills, which carries her line. "But it's also good for women who don't want to wear a bra."
Kimless-Garber's foray into fashion stemmed from necessity. The mother of one daughter was content with her job as an anesthesiologist when she was diagnosed in October 2005 with cancer in the ducts and lobules of both breasts.
"I went for a baseline MRI and both breasts lit up like a Christmas tree," she said. "I went for a biopsy and it was everywhere, just everywhere."
Kimless-Garber had a double mastectomy that November - she didn't have to have chemotherapy and radiation. The following February she had reconstructive surgery.
In July 2006, she was planning a trip to the Grand Canyon and was figuring out her wardrobe. She didn't like the way her breasts looked, and because she had residual pain from surgery, even simple cotton shirts felt like sandpaper.
The surgery left her unable to practice medicine because she suffered from spasms, so she focused on fashion, first buying a sewing machine and making her own patterns.
In a few months she had a T-shirt, but she hadn't solved the flat-breast issue. She experimented with foam - the same kind of material used in makeup application sponges - but when she slipped them in the pockets, they didn't pass the hug test. Literally, if you hug the wearer, you shouldn't feel any seams or stitches, bumps or separations.
Eventually Kimless-Garber found a manufacturer in China who could make the Breast Shaper's concave shape, though she's currently in talks with a Maryland-based company to make them Stateside. The shirts are made in New York's Garment District.
"I want to revolutionize shapewear," she said.
Not to mention, she may single-handedly revamp those old chicken cutlets.