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Meet MEO, the Karen Walker-designed mask that could literally save lives

Karen Walker needs no introduction for anyone with an interest in fashion or design. After all, she’s probably Aotearoa’s most famous designer. But her team-up for a new health technology product designed in the Land of the Long White Cloud for the Asian market using key components made in New Zealand, including wool from a new breed of sheep, is a sheep – er, horse – of a different colour entirely.

Auckland-based Healthy Breath Ltd launched its new anti-pollution face mask, known as the MEO, this past Wednesday. Designed in collaboration with Walker for export to international markets – particularly China, India and South-East Asia – Healthy Breath Ltd president David Gao says a key differentiator for the MEO range is its use of a unique wool blend scientifically developed by Lanaco (formerly known as Texus Fibre) in New Zealand. “The new wool blend is the result of many years of research and development and utilises the protective qualities of specifically selected and scientifically tested wool from sheep bred in the mountains of Wanaka,” says Gao.

Alright, so we’ve got cutting-edge science, an entirely new breed of sheep, a pretty sweet design, and a rad launch event at Auckland’s Langham Hotel that featured a 270-degree, floor-to-ceiling screen, product demonstrations, and a guest list that included Government ministers, officials from the Chinese embassy, Chinese and New Zealand media, and a plethora of movers and shakers in the business, tech and design worlds. Oh, and there was also a solid kai situation featuring various Chinese-inspired comestibles.

But how, exactly, does the tech in the mask work? Gao says it’s quite simple. “The unique biological properties of the wool filter mean MEO masks provide electrostatic filtration of the finest levels of atmospheric particulate matter, as well as protection from bacteria, while still being easy to breathe through.”

Healthy Breath recently became the second-largest shareholder of Lanaco, as part of a multimillion-dollar investment and distribution deal. Other investors in Lanaco include NZVIF, Sparkbox Investments and K1W1. Gao says to create MEO – which he describes as the world’s most innovative anti-pollution face mask – Healthy Breath invested heavily in research and development, both in New Zealand and overseas, in addition to working with Lanaco.

“The founders of Healthy Breath Ltd are New Zealanders with a proven track record of building businesses in Auckland, as well as extensive experience exporting New Zealand products to the world. We have a strong commitment to building the New Zealand economy and stimulating growth through innovation and international marketing,” says Gao. “For MEO, we have created an end-to-end supply chain that started with breeding the right kind of sheep to get the kind of wool we needed to create a filter that we’ll be proud to deliver into the hands of consumers. Additionally, we’ve set aside a significant budget for research and development over the coming years, which will ultimately deliver significant returns to New Zealand sheep farmers, the New Zealand manufacturing sector and the New Zealand economy.”

According to the World Health Organization, poor air quality claims seven million lives annually, with urban air pollution accounting for four million deaths. Because of this, Walker says she was happy to be involved with a product that could literally help save lives. “The future of fashion is in well-being and I’m excited about the many ways that fashion can work in this area, especially by partnering in the areas of technology and science,” she explains. “Well-being’s become the new luxury and we love the idea of fashion and science coming together to create life-changing products.”

Although they’re different products, Walker adds that the process of designing a breath mask is actually quite similar to that of a jacket or trouser.  “It’s exactly the same process – it’s all about form and function and problem solving. With this product the technology behind the filter was developed by sheep genetics expert Andy Ramsden at The Sheep Company and the framework for the mask was designed by industrial designers here in Auckland. After these stages were complete I then worked with Healthy Breath Ltd to develop the changeable facings with our designs and the arrow branding on the straps.”

She also says there’s an important social message behind the masks. “Obviously, air pollution, as with any pollution, is sad as well as disturbing and motivating,” she explains. “It’s a global issue with no quick fix. Many of the cities I visit frequently have poor air quality – there have been many times I’ve arrived into Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong or Tokyo and been thankful for my hometown’s purity of air quality. We have fans in many cities that have air quality problems, and I think that they want and deserve to have fun with their functionality. Unfortunately, the need for this product is inevitable for the foreseeable future, but when you’re putting something on your face it shouldn’t be boring.

“It’s the big breakthrough in technology that I love most with this project. An entirely new sheep breed bred especially for this! Amazing. I love that the product development has gone right into this detail and I also love the idea of fashion and technology coming together to make a difference. We always want the best materials for the job. It just so happens that for this project the wool for the filter was developed and is grown in New Zealand which is wonderful.”

Walker says the facings that were designed was about a four-month process. “However prior to us starting this process other teams had to do their part. The wool for the filters and the framework for the masks together required several years of development involving a lot of people.”

And, she explains, the breath masks also say something more. “I think that it speaks to the practicality, resourcefulness and agility of the New Zealand spirit.”

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