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Fashion

Meet the Local Who Founded Stemwear, an Accessible Athleisure Company

After her primary lymphedema diagnosis, Debra Swersky was frustrated with the few options she had to cover her compression garment. So she chopped off the leg to a pair of leggings. Now she's selling her one-legged leggings to the public.
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Officially launched in January 2022, Stemwear makes accessible, one-legged leggings. Courtesy of Stemwear

Launching Stemwear, an online accessible athleisure brand, was not an easy journey for founder Debra Swersky.

After Swersky moved to Dallas nearly seven years ago, she developed a Saturday routine of running eight miles along the Katy Trail. She’d hit the gym or local studio classes during the week, saving her Katy Trail runs for the weekends.

In 2016, she began noticing her knee would begin hurting around mile six. The pain usually went away later in the day, so she ignored it. But when her right thigh began to swell, she decided to go to the doctor.

What came next was an agonizing year of scans and appointments. “I lost track of how many doctors I saw,” Swersky says. Doctors initially told her to stop working out: “if you want to walk, you have to walk at the speed of a chihuahua,” one told her. Swersky felt like she’d lost a piece of herself, and her leg was still swollen. 

In January 2017, she got her diagnosis: primary lymphedema, a chronic swelling condition that impacts one in 100,000 people, in her right leg. She was told she’d have to wear a compression garment on her leg 23 hours a day for the rest of her life.

Swersky compares the process of accepting this huge change to her body to the five stages of grief, while also calling the process mentally debilitating. Your leg swells, giving your body an asymmetrical, “unsightly” look. The compression garment she wore was a “blah beige color,” she says. “And that was unfortunate because I’m a pretty colorful person.”

Her diagnosis and compression garment caused body dysmorphia, anxiety as strangers would ask about the condition, and an endless search for some normalcy, she says. “I just felt so uncomfortable in my own skin.” She wanted to live the way she wanted to and express her colorful fashion while somehow still wearing her compression sock. 

Then one day in 2017, Swersky was standing in her kitchen, complaining to her husband. She went on about how she didn’t want to leave the house because she didn’t feel comfortable in her compression garment. Her husband suggested she make her own. Swersky didn’t want to quite go that far, but she figured she could cover it up. So, she bought a pair of colorful checkerboard leggings à la Piet Mondrian and then chopped off a leg.

Swersky later went shopping for clothes to wear with her new one-legged leggings. She tried on a dress at Express, and when she came out of the dressing room, she “no longer felt self-conscious about the garment,” she says. “[It] instantly felt like I made a fashion statement.” 

She decided to create her own line of one-legged leggings to help others similarly find themselves again. Swersky launched a simple website and got a patent for her design in 2018. However, it wasn’t until after her son was born in 2018 and the pandemic began in 2020 that the business got serious. “If I was going to do something, I needed to do it now,” she says. Her son drove a lot of that motivation. She knew she’d have to wear these leggings for the rest of her life, and “I didn’t want that perceived as anything different for him.”

Stemwear launched to Swersky’s friends and family in November 2021 and to the public in January 2022. The athleisurewear company is all about comfort and self-expression. Each pair of the $115 leggings is made-to-order—customers can specify which leg they’d like short and the pattern.

Currently, Stemwear offers nine different bright and colorful styles, as well as a two-legged legging (only one leg is patterned) for the colder months. Swersky says it was important to have options because people with disabilities are often extremely limited in what they can wear. Plenty of thought went into the design, too, she says. The non-compressive leggings have a more giving ankle seam, to help get it over a swollen leg, and the soft fabric “feels like you’re being hugged.”

Last spring, Swersky began working with Runway of Dreams, a New Jersey-based organization that empowers people with disabilities through inclusive and adaptive fashion. She showed her styles at several college fashion shows and at New York Fashion Week last month. Working with Runway of Dreams, she says, has opened up Stemwear to so many “different people with disabilities of all shapes and sizes.”

Ever since she launched to the public, Swersky says she’s been surprised by the number of people who’ve adapted her leggings to their own needs. She originally made them for lymphedema patients like herself because she had no other option. Had there been companies already making colorful leggings like Stemwear’s, “I wouldn’t have gone through the effort,” she says. “I would have just bought it.”

But not all her customers have lymphedema. She’s made leggings for a woman with Spina Bifida who wanted to cover her leg brace and another woman who wanted to cover scars from a birth deformity. She’s produced pieces for amputees and even able-bodied customers who want to support loved ones or want to mimic the styles of celebrities like Serena Williams and Carrie Underwood

“It’s really become a fashion statement that is being used in so many different contexts,” she says. “I hate to call it mainstream, but it feels like it might be.” One-legged styles becoming more mainstream is ultimately a good thing, Swersky explains. It helps people with lymphedema like her or other disabilities find and reclaim control of their lives. 

And it helps to normalize and celebrate accessible fashion for everyone, regardless of ability, which is her ultimate goal with Stemwear. “I want it to be something that anyone can buy, and anyone can wear,” she says. “And I want lots of people wearing it.”

Author

Catherine Wendlandt

Catherine Wendlandt

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Catherine Wendlandt is the online associate editor for D Magazine’s Living and Home and Garden blogs, where she covers all…

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