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Fashion's New Focus: A Generation Born HIV-Free

The fashion industry has designs on putting an end to mother-to-child HIV transmission through the Born Free project, which kicks into high gear today.

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NEW YORK — The fashion industry has designs on putting an end to mother-to-child HIV transmission.

Today, Born Free, a project spearheaded by Apax Partners U.S. chairman John Megrue, with support from Anna Wintour and Diane von Furstenberg, kicks into high gear when exclusive mother-and-child merchandise becomes available at Shopbop.com, which is owned by Amazon. Each piece was created by one of 22 designers who are also mothers, using one of two prints by Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu.

The aim is to raise awareness as well as funds toward a surprisingly simple solution to one facet of the AIDS epidemic in Africa — that it requires women take only a pill a day to stop mother-to-child HIV transmission during pregnancy.

“The wonderful thing about Born Free is that it already is a solution,” said von Furstenberg. “Usually, you work toward these incredible breakthroughs. Here, if women take a pill a day, every day, their children will be HIV-free, and that is unbelievable. It’s not just hope — it’s a reality.”

More than 90 percent of HIV infections in children are the result of mother-to-child transmission, which can happen during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding. While the danger of such transmission has largely been eliminated in Europe, the U.S. and other parts of the West, it’s still a major issue in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2012, 260,000 children were infected with HIV by their mothers at birth. The daily pill has shown success rates of 98 percent.

Megrue, who is chairman of Born Free and chairman of the Business Leadership Council for a Generation Born HIV Free, had been involved in the global health sector and done humanitarian work in Africa for many years (he is also vice chairman of the U.N. Special Envoys Office, a director of Grameen America, director of Millennium Promise and a trustee of the Apax Foundation). Born Free, which was formally launched last year, came out of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

“If you spend time in a pediatric AIDS clinic in Africa, and you realize the incredible mortality and the ease with which one can stop that by giving a pregnant mother a pill a day, you come away feeling you have to do something,” he said. “I was asked by U.N.’s special envoy office to get involved specifically with mother-to-child transmission, and bring a business perspective to this area, in partnership with so many great organizations that are involved in it — governments and not-for-profits.”

Fashion, Megrue noted, was a natural go-to.

“The fashion industry, first of all, was the very first industry to be involved in HIV in the early Eighties,” he said. “Secondly, this is around mothers and children, which resonates in the fashion industry. Thirdly, we need a major consumer awareness campaign to make sure that the funding from all the developed countries continues, and for those governments to hear about the success and how important it is to maintain the funding so that we can make sure newborn babies can be born HIV-free. To do that, the general public needs to be aware and the fashion industry is a great platform to do that from.”

Enter Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue and Condé Nast artistic director, and von Furstenberg, who, in her role as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, also works directly with the American designer community.

“It is something the fashion industry has always been behind, right from the very early days when we got together to support 7th on Sale,” said Wintour. “When John first talked to us about trying to help in Africa, it just made perfect sense. It struck a chord with everyone involved. There was no question in anyone’s mind. It was one of those things — you make the call and everyone just says yes.

“Everyone made such an effort and the clothes are great — charming and very different,” she added. “It’s not just a T-shirt, it’s a collection, and, hopefully, it will have legs. If it’s a success, maybe we can ask them to do a second collection with another artist, although John is trying to get this all wrapped up by 2015.”

The selection process was not exclusive — the designers were picked based on availability. The list of participating designers is impressive and includes Carolina Herrera, Miuccia Prada, Marni’s Consuelo Castiglioni, Alberta Ferretti, Chloé’s Clare Waight Keller, Céline’s Phoebe Philo, Isabel Marant and Vera Wang.

“Because these are all mothers, it’s been very emotional for them, and they have put [Born Free] on top of their queue,” Sylvana Ward Durrett, Vogue’s director of special projects, noted. “It was not just to create clothes but to create a movement around this whole cause.”

Unified via Mutu’s patterns, the merchandise is extensive in scope, ranging from baby blankets by Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton to Stella McCartney and Donatella Versace T-shirts, a Victoria Victoria Beckham shift dress, and von Furstenberg’s scarf and diaper bag.

The team brought in Meaghan Burdick of Burdick Consulting Group to help source cost-effective manufacturing ways and maximize proceeds to the cause. Shopbop purchased all product in the collection and 100 percent of the profits will go to Born Free. Priced from $39 to $450, a Céline tote, for example, is available for $225; a Chloé children’s dress for $98, and a Prada skirt for $220.

“It’s such an important initiative,” said Tory Burch, who designed a mother-and-daughter tote as well as a dress. “It helps pregnant women in Africa affected by HIV and gives them the ability to ensure their babies are born [without HIV.] There is nothing more important than a healthy baby. It gives HIV-positive mothers hope for a great future for their children.”

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