Infectious Fashions Catch On
Roger Freeman never really knows what's going to sell - ebola syphilis, malaria? So here's how the retired dentist from Encino, Calif., hawks his $39.95 silk neckties, scarves and (new!) boxer shorts designed with microscopic views of deadly bacteria, viruses and other comely microbes: Schlepping merchandise to a half-dozen medical conferences a year, providing custom designs for fund-raisers and taking orders at www.iawareables.com.
And here's how he and his wife and business partner, Felice, found out they had a hit on their hands with anthrax: a gaggle of squiggles with the biohazard trefoil superimposed for added intrigue. "We just came back from the American Public Health Conference in Atlanta, and San Francisco, the Infectious Disease Society of America," Freeman said. "Within 20 minutes we were sold out of the anthrax design" at both conferences, he said.
Not only that, but due to the amount of Internet searches for the word "anthrax," there has been a flurry of activity at the Freemans' Web site for Infectious Awareables Inc. The site Tuesday was No. 4 on the Daypop Top 40, which ranks a list of links popular with Webloggers around the world. No. 1 was "The MTV Chronicles," No. 2, "The Worst Halloween Costumes Ever," and No. 3 "After an Online Ruckus, Microsoft Opens MSN Site to All." "It's nice, but I have to be extremely careful," Freeman said. "We're so much about education and awareness that this smacks of opportunism."
The company's goals are "to produce awareness products that make a real impact; to encourage education; and to help support organizations that work on behalf of the public health." In fact, the anthrax design (in teal, red and new gray) has been around for about a year. It takes months to render a design scientifically accurate, make it aesthetically pleasing for clothing and have it manufactured in China, Freeman said.
Before anthrax trumped tuberculosis as the design of choice, most of Infectious Awareables' customers were physicians and researchers who shared the quirky and macabre sense of humor that comes from squinting through microscopes at the cruel causes of fatal diseases. "They're kind of groupies," Freeman said. "What do they have to laugh about? They go to these meetings and it's grim."
But now the neckwear has hit the general market. "What you're doing is giving the finger to anthrax," Freeman said a customer explained to him. "I had orders from the Pentagon," Freeman said.
All this after a slow start for the design of a disease that prior to the last few weeks was more associated with cattle than Congress. "People were yawning for a while," Freeman said. But he stuck with it, adding it to the line that includes a cloudscape-looking staphylococcus, a mod-looking malaria and a pseudo-paisley giardia.
He was inspired, in part, by reading the book, "The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance" by Laurie Garrett, winner of the Pulitzer, Polk and Peabody prizes for journalism. Sarin nerve gas interested him, but it didn't have the name recognition. "If I did that, nobody'd buy that," Freeman said. "Nobody's heard about sarin gas. It has no panache." Plus, "Anthrax is a disease of animals," Freeman said. "That opens up the veterinarian market."
Infectious Awareables started in November of 1997 with a disease-prevention video titled "H.I.D.E. & S.E.E.K.!" At the wrap party, Heather Ross, who had written the video copy, gave Freeman a herpes tie from a wholesale business in Salt Lake City. Freeman loved the tie, ordered 50 and eventually took over the line when the company failed to succeed in the general retail market.
"The ties up until now have been a teaching tool," said Ross, a Salt Lake County resident and freelance medical writer who sold the line regionally for a while. "Now they're just bizarre."
The company's brochures are printed at Colorado Printing in Grand Junction. Infectious Awareables donates part of its profits each year " to Children's Hospital Los Angeles, Emory University Medical School Department of Infectious Disease and Susan G. Koman Breast Cancer Foundation, among others.
Freeman said he'll tally the profits at the end of the year and will solicit suggestions from customers if he should target any agencies specifically tied to the anthrax tragedies. For the future, Freeman is hoping his testosterone boxers will have universal appeal. In the last four years, "We were in Yahoo, we were in Playboy and we were in GQ," Freeman said. "You get a spurt of activity, but basically John Q. Public is not going to be interested in this.
"Now when we came out with the testosterone boxers, based on the molecule, I've been approached by the men's magazines. They wanted artwork."
The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction CO 10-31-01
By Laurena Mayne Davis