Their homonymous designs to the contrary, Ralph Lauren, Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein aren’t Dr. Ruth Kavenoff’s competition. They make jeans; she makes genes. Well, sort of. An eccentric cellular biologist, Kavenoff spent much of her adult life hunched over electron microscopes studying the molecular structure of the fruit-fly cell. She has for the past four years, however, been selling a line of clothes called Designer Genes, Blue-Genes and Good Genes decorated with stunning copies of magnified pictures of chromosomes, genes and RNA and DNA molecules from the common intestinal bacteria called E. coli.
Kavenoff’s Genes include cotton T-shirts, sweatshirts, bikini undies, children’s rompers, lab coats and tote bags selling for $8 to $30. Each features a silk-screened reproduction of a gene, chromosome or DNA or RNA molecule blown up 10,000 to 250,000 times. The DNA shirts are signed E. coli, and unknowing customers have called Kavenoff asking for a designer named Coli. Gently she tries to explain.
Kavenoff, 43 and divorced, earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York in 1971, then worked for many years as a research associate at the University of California in San Diego. In 1983 she had the idea of making posters and postcards from her electron microscope photographs. “I thought my photographs were certainly prettier than the Albert Einstein posters all my friends had hanging in their houses,” she says. T-shirts quickly followed. Today, from the cluttered apartment in Del Mar, Calif., that Kavenoff calls both office and home, she sells her line at university bookstores and museum gift shops as well as by mail. Although the business grossed only $20,000 (and netted $3,000) last year, it takes up most of Kavenoff’s time. Her research is on hold these days since her funding dried up six years ago. She hopes that the Genes sales may soon cover her lab costs. “My priority is my research,” she says. “My business is the means to continuing that research.” As for her genetically inspired wares, Kavenoff sees herself as a missionary. “I’m doing this to make biology easy, fun and amusing so that people will have the confidence to learn more about it.” With passionate immodesty she adds: “I like to feel that I am doing for molecules what Audubon did for birds.”