Anthrax Scare Spawns Interest in Bio-Fashion
It's not a good thing to be known for sending anthrax through the postal system. Not ever.
Especially not now.
So please excuse Dr. Roger Freeman, president of Infectious Awareables Inc., if he doesn't boast of the boom he is seeing in business these days. Freeman, whose company designs clothing that shows the enlarged microscopic images of infectious diseases, is seeing quite a run on his anthrax items.
Anthrax scarves. Anthrax ties. Anthrax boxer shorts. All available over the Internet. All shipped directly to your door.
"Yes, business is up,'' says Freeman. "But I never thought it would be. I thought this line would drop off the face of the Earth. We've had the anthrax items two years. Now I'm in a position where I'm afraid people will get the wrong impression. We do not trivialize this. The last thing I want people to think is that we're making fun of this.''
The judgment of the individual actually buying an anthrax tie remains in question. Still, there is no denying that, just as e-mail servers and the maker of Cipro are seeing an increase in business as an unwitting byproduct of the anthrax scare, so, too, is Freeman. It's a position he never thought he would be in when he started selling his products in 1997 for the sole purpose of promoting awareness.
It began at a wrap party celebrating completion of a disease-protection video, when the project's writer gave Freeman, the producer, herpes.
That is, a herpes tie, which showed in blue, yellow and red what the virus looked like.
"I fell on the floor," says Freeman. "It was so weird."
But Freeman, a former dentist, saw opportunity. He made a few calls, found out that the company that made the herpes ties was going out of business, and immediately took over the rights to the designs that were already in the hopper and were created in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control. The designs, he thought, were beautiful.
"Look, I'm a dentist, and I think that microbiology is an obscenely beautiful world,'' he says. "Gee, why, it's a whole culture, microscopic, that can fit on the head of a pin, that's been around a lot longer than you and I, and will be around a lot longer after we're gone."
Freeman decided to take the business in a different direction, though. While the original company tried to put its designs in upscale department stores, Freeman decided to market his line to medical professionals. He still does. Out of a customer base of 12,000, Freeman says, 95 percent are in health care.
"If you look at our mailing list," he says, "it's a who's who of health care."
He also branched out from herpes. Now Infectious Awareables has designs ranging from the Ebola virus to gonorrhea. There are even designs that aren't infectious, such as testosterone. A design for Parkinson's is in the works, and a more general stem cell pattern is nearly ready to market.
"We're moving away from infectious diseases to issues," explains Freeman.
The line, too, has moved from only neckties to scarves, boxer shorts, caps and shirts. And most important, there is a tag sewn on each item with an informational blurb called a learning note. The one for testosterone is light-hearted: "Based on the molecular structure of this popular hormone, these shorts should be sold with a disclaimer: The Surgeon General advises caution in using these items. Side effects such as hair growth, deepening of the voice and leavening libidos may be experienced with repeated use."
The label for anthrax is more sobering: "Anthrax is a highly lethal disease capable of causing shock and death in 24 to 36 hours. An effective vaccine has limited the danger to its primary target, farm animals. However, due to its airborne mode of transmission, it looms as a significant biological warfare threat.''
It is those labels, reasons Freeman, that make the anthrax items, in particular, so popular during these stressful times. While the general public can make purchases from the Web site, www.iawareables.com, and have since 1998, he reiterates that most customers are doctors who have gotten away from the slapstick toothbrush tie and are looking for a high-quality silk item that not only looks and feels good, but is also educational.
A portion of Freeman's profits go to research, education and treatment through institutions such as Children's Hospital Los Angeles, Emory University Medical School Department of Infectious Disease and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
"We've been about education for four years, and before," says Freeman. "It's just a scary coincidence, all this publicity."
San Jose Mercury News
October 25, 2001
By Candace Murphy