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Viral Fashion

For The Guy On Your List: Neckwear With An Infectious Sense Of Style Derived From Actual Disease Patterns

INFECTIOUS AWAREABLES' neckties show images of diseases as they appear under a microscope, including e. coli.

They were all out of herpes.

Scrolling through the tie selection at the Infectious Awareables website, I was disappointed that the most diseasey-looking neckwear was out of stock. Unlike many of the other ties, the mold-like splotches of the herpes virus could not be mistaken for artistic design.

In contrast, the geometric elegance of the West Nile virus, hepatitis B's rambling paisley, and the deep-red rosettes of an infamous venereal disease would pass muster at any fancy dinner party.

"Say, Ned - nice tie."

"Thanks, Brooke. It's gonorrhea."


"Not me, muffin, the tie."

Since 1997, California-based Infectious Awareables has offered silk neckties, scarves and other products imprinted with images of various diseases as they appear under the microscope. The company's website,, explains the goal:

"Our mission is threefold: to generate interest, discussion - even excitement - about serious public health issues which affect us all; to educate and provide pertinent information on these issues; and to attempt, through contributions, to support the efforts of those involved in research and education."

Humor and innovation, according to the statement, are needed to reach "a desensitized public already gridlocked on the information superhighway."

Eager to test that shock-and-awe mission, I purchased the syphilis tie and the e. coli tie for $39.95 each, not including shipping. Although neither was as plainly sickening as the herpes tie, both were troubling. The syphilis pattern looked like red worms crawling over spaghetti, while the e. coli resembled maggots encased in a fibrous net.

I wore the tan, red and white e. coli tie to a book and music store, coffee shop and restaurant last week. The clerk who rang up my CDs said nothing; the cheerful baristas did not comment; and the waiter who served my meatball grinder was apathetic or unaware.

I can't blame them; I wouldn't know chlamydia from giardia, either. But most of the people who buy these ties are focused on chronic and contagious diseases, according to Infectious Awareables president Roger Freeman. The company's approximately 27,000 clients worldwide include many physicians, scientists, professors, laboratory technicians and public health officials, Freeman said.

People also buy his stuff just for fun, Freeman said. The line includes "bioboxers," men's underwear with images of testosterone, dust mites and various diseases. Women find the boxers especially hilarious.

"'I've got to take this back to my boyfriend and tell him I gave him gonorrhea.' I don't know how many times I've heard that one," Freeman said.

A dentist for 30 years, he and his wife, Felice, bought out a Salt Lake City company that had offered a similar but more limited line of products. That company failed because they tried a traditional sales approach, Freeman said.

"Drop herpes in the middle of a department store, and what are you gonna get?" he said.

Infectious Awareables relies on Internet sales and marketing to the public health field. The for-profit company donates five to 10 percent of net proceeds each year to various organizations that research and provide education on various diseases, Freeman said.

An artist draws the patterns for ties and other products based on digital images, he said. Tuberculosis has been the company's best seller, Freeman said, because clients find the rendering so precise. The Infectious Awareables website provides a description and short history of TB, along with links to organizations battling its spread.

But selling images of painful and deadly diseases as fun accessories has caused some controversy. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the subsequent bio-terrorism scare, the Infectious Awareables website was mobbed, Freeman said, mostly because of the anthrax products. Reporters called to question whether he was being disgustingly opportunistic for offering the squirmy strands of a deadly biohazard on silk ties.

In fact, Freeman said, the company had been offering the anthrax design for two years before the attacks, with accompanying warnings on the back of each tie about the disease's potential as a weapon of mass destruction.

The company today is "almost self-sustaining," Freeman said, because of the relative ease of online sales. Business may be getting even better. Although the popularity of ties declined through the 1990s with the spread of more casual office wear, that appears to be changing. The NPD group, which tracks clothing sales and trends, reported recently that tie sales to men ages 18 to 34 increased from $303 million to $343 million from March 2006 to March 2007.

The young guys aren't wearing their grandfathers' conservative patterns or their fathers' gimmicky designs, according to a story last week in The New York Times. Instead, the Times reported, they're going for a look that's "slightly off-beat in a laid-back way."

Whether mad cow disease on a burnt orange background fits into that trend is hard to say. But Freeman says he likes to keep pace with the public's interest. One of his most recent designs, a dreamwave pattern, capitalizes on the widespread interest in sleep disorders.

"There's no question that we're opportunistic," Freeman said.

Hartford Courant October 16, 2007
By JESSE LEAVENWORTH | Courant Staff Writer

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