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Red Ribbons for AIDS Awareness Cause Ripples


Monday's Academy Awards show will, no doubt, be the usual fashion competition among the movie elite, but most will be wearing the same accessory in one form or another: a red ribbon in the shape of an inverted V.

It symbolizes both compassion for AIDS victims and unity against this pandemic disease.

While the small loop of grosgrain has become as customary on awards shows as the trophies presented, why hasn't the ribbon caught on with equal fervor among the viewing audience?

One answer: As popular as the symbol has become, many people still do not know what it signifies or understand its accessibility.

"I thought you could only wear them if you were a film star," says Liane Wainsteim, a receptionist at an Irvine hair salon.

She and others say they would like to wear one if they knew where to purchase them.

At Emporio Armani at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, the sales force wears a metal version fastened to their lapels. A saleswoman there says that one customer said he would only purchase a suit if he could also have her ribbon.

For those not up on the ins and outs: The ribbon is definitely a hot item. Since its introduction two years ago, retailers--Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Robinsons-May, to name a few--have been teaming with AIDS organizations to sell designer versions of the pin in enamel, crystal pave, even non-red sterling silver.

And that concerns some activists. Even the originators of the symbol, who were criticized for possibly trivializing a catastrophic disease, are worried that the ribbon may be commercialized into insignificance.

"We really worry that it doesn't become as shallow as the smiley face," says Patrick O'Connell, executive director of Visual AIDS, the New York-based volunteer artist collaborative that created the symbol and is also responsible for such international events as A Day Without Art.

"We have a fear that the commercialization of the project will lead to a complete cannibalization of the symbol . . . and it could lose its power if its original intent is lost in the rush for money."

The group devised the simple satin or grosgrain ribbons in 1991 when much of the country was wearing a yellow bow to show support for troops in the Persian Gulf war. The group said the red ribbon was its response to a war against AIDS, which has killed more Americans than the Vietnam War did and has yet to see any great victories.

The ribbon was not intended as a fund-rising device and should be given away, according to the Visual AIDS group, which placed it in the public domain.

But the little loop soon became a tool for AIDS organizations to raise funds while raising awareness.

Neiman Marcus, for example, launched its "50 Against One" campaign, enlisting 50 designers to create spectacular red ribbons or incorporate the red loop onto a beret, scarf or hair accessory. As a result of sales, the department store earlier this month gave a $130,000 check to the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

Saks Fifth Avenue offers a $100 crystal pin by jeweler James Arpad (also available at Neiman Marcus) to benefit the Design Industry Foundation for AIDS.

Saks' South Coast Plaza store has sold 60 of the James Arpad pins, more than any of its other California stores: San Francisco and Beverly Hills each sold 50; San Diego sold 10.

Robinsons-May is selling enamel and rhinestone pins from $10 to $18 and has promised to give the proceeds to AmFAR. Since the campaign started on Dec. 21, the chain (including its Foley stores in the Midwest) has given the nonprofit AmFAR $60,000; the pins are still selling fast.

Stores rarely disclose how much they make off such sales, and that worries some AIDS activists. Commercializing the ribbon will make it merely a pop fashion fad, they say.

"It's a judgment call," says AmFAR's Erik Stoltz. "For a lot of people, it's the beginning. The little action of putting on the pin is the first step. As the disease strikes more and more segments of society, we have to allow for greater variation in the way people join the fight."

Adds Rosemary Kuropat, active executive director of DIFFA in New York: "If wearing the ribbon satisfies people's own need to show that they're doing something about AIDS and it reminds (others) that (they) have to do something about it--something more than simply wearing a ribbon--then it succeeds.

"Aside from the jeweled and metal versions, someone can snip a couple of inches of ribbon and skip the commercial aspects," Kuropat says.

DIFFA, AmFAR and Visual AIDS give away thousands of the grosgrain or satin ribbons to schools, service clubs, companies and individuals who request them. But the ribbon still appears most often in industries and cities connected with the entertainment and fashion industries--all areas deeply hit by this disease.

And in cities such as San Francisco and New York, where residents and government are much more vocal about joining the cause, shoe salesman, waitresses and cabbies can be spotted sporting the ribbon.

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