Two Designers Are Stitching Zika Protection Into Fashion

The clothing line hopes to provide moms-to-be throughout the Americas with an easy, stylish solution.
(Photo: James Jordan/Flickr)
Aug 8, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Gwendolyn Wu is an editorial intern at TakePart and a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Zika protection is about to take a fashionable turn.

Maternova, a virtual marketplace specializing in a range of products for pregnant women and infants, is producing a clothing line of jumpsuits, maxi skirts, and scarves laced with insect repellent that aims to help moms-to-be protect themselves from the virus. Pregnant women in the Americas are especially vulnerable, as Zika can cause microcephaly, a neurological birth defect that results in shrunken heads among newborns.

“It’s going to be something that’s very wearable,” said Allyson Cote, cofounder of Maternova, which is partnering with Brazilian designers to create styles for women in the U.S. and South America. “When people see someone wearing it, they’re not going to say, ‘Oh, they’re wearing protective apparel,’ because it’s not going to look like that. It’s going to look like great clothing.”

The Maternova team piloted the apparel idea at a Zika design challenge in May, earning a prize of $25,000 Canadian dollars from Grand Challenges Canada to get the ball rolling. As of press time, the group has also raised $6,400 on the crowdfunding site Republic to further fund the project.

(Illustration: Courtesy Maternova)

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Cote and cofounder Meg Wirth chose to pursue clothing because of its universal nature. “Many women in lower-resource areas spend a lot of time in and around water for a variety of reasons, where mosquitos are most concentrated,” according to a blog post on the business’ site. “Clothing goes wherever women go to keep them protected.”

The textile is free of permethrin—an insecticide the EPA is still studying as a possible carcinogen—and instead laced with a safe insect repellent designed to protect the wearer from more than 40 types of insects. While Cote and Wirth won’t reveal the name of the pesticide because it’s a “trade secret,” the brand has been used in Europe for 30 years, Wirth said. The repellent won’t last permanently in the clothes, but the founders estimate protection should stand up to at least 50 washes.

“In terms of the longevity of the clothing, there is nothing on the market that lasts continuously,” explained Elizabeth Bailey, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital who also confirmed the unnamed pesticide was approved for use in the U.S. “Fifty washes is actually quite good when you compare it to skin repellent that washes off after each use. This is especially true when you think about maternity wear, which only has a short life span anyway.”

Meg Wirth and Allyson Cote, the founders of Maternova. (Photo: Courtesy Maternova )

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An initial batch of T-shirts has been distributed, but more products are in the works, and the full clothing collection is slated to debut in late October. Internal market research conducted by Maternova indicated that while fashionable clothing was important to consumers, one group especially cared about being able to wear the insect-repelling fabric on the job, according to Wirth.

“One of the things we’ve already been asked for is health worker uniforms, which could be scrubs, a basic T-shirt or collared shirt, and pants,” Wirth told TakePart. “The things that we’re most interested in are everyday items that women could wear. We’re looking at leggings, long shirts, or tunics.”

Zika has been especially problematic in South American countries that can’t afford to deal with the problem. In Brazil, where 16 million people live in poverty, purchasing preventive products can be out of reach for some families. While the line’s price range hasn’t been determined yet, the Maternova team is choosing to provide some clinics with free clothing and offering others subsidized prices that U.S. buyers will help pay for.

Wirth acknowledged some of the limitations and questions about manufacturing of the apparel. While the fabric has been tested for efficacy, the designers aren’t sure how much clothing buyers will have to wear and whether they’ll like the styles available.

“Clothing is very personal and very cultural, and we are aware that a lot of different users in different settings need to be asked for input,” she said. “How can we be sure not to displace local tailors and clothing manufacturers but rather, work with them?”