Top American designers are flocking to support a new health campaign. Liesl Schillinger reports
KATE MOSS'S hair is tousled, her legs are bare. Wearing nothing but a thin T-shirt that barely scrapes her thigh, she straddles a stool. For a change, she is not using her gamine frame and indolent pout to flog $5,000 dresses; she is advertising . . . breast cancer - and the fact that one in nine women will get it and that, if you buy her T-shirt with its teal and indigo bull's-eye, $5 will go to the Nina Hyde Center in Washington to fight the disease.

Breast cancer awareness is this season's de rigueur American fashion accessory, and Moss is only one of an imposing bunch of fashion photographers and super models, including Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, and Linda Evangelista, who have donated their services to the Council of Fashion Designers of America's (CFDA) "Fashion Targets Breast Cancer" campaign. Harper's Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis, herself a survivor of ovarian cancer, joins the chorus in praise of the effort. "What's terribly important is they're young and they're beautiful, so it's wonderful they're taking cancer on board," she said. "Because cancer can happen to young women, too."

In the past, women's cancer awareness initiatives in the United States have been subtle, such as the euphemistic Breast Center ads in Manhattan subways - a melancholy blond looks down at her embonpoint, accompanied by a text that reads: "Every day Lynn stares at her breasts for 15 minutes and asks herself; `Should I, or shouldn't I?' "

But the time for mincing words is over: the CFDA effort is no modest proposal. It is a glamorous, glitzy, high-profile fanfare, attended by the assembled court of America's fashion, film, journalistic, musical, business and political nobles; and if you're not part of the festivities, you're out of style.

The target T-shirts and the accompanying publicity campaign are the brainchild of fashion king Ralph Lauren, who serves as the chairman of the programme, aided by co-chairs Oscar de La Renta, Louis Dell'Olio and Donna Karan. A survivor of brain cancer himself, Lauren had actively pursued the breast cancer cause before it became fashionable, ever since his good friend Nina Hyde, longtime fashion editor of the Washington Post, fell victim to the disease. She died in 1990. "Nina never gave up hope, and I didn't think that she would die," Lauren says with emotion. While she was still alive, he helped found a research centre in her name, and not long after, he began conferring with fashion industry colleagues to see how they could use the CFDA's clout to spread awareness. First Lady Hillary Clinton, whose mother-in-law died of breast cancer last year, set the tone by throwing an inaugural gala at the White House to kick off the event, just in time for October's National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The intervening weeks have seen scores of free adverts in glossy magazines - paid for by Conde Nast, Hearst, Hachette/Filipacchi - countless MTV spots, forests of cards and leaflets, and air time on leading US television shows Melrose Place and Mad About You. Even if you didn't watch television, you could join the frolic by sporting this season's de rigueur cosmetic lip colour, Estee Lauder's new "Pink Ribbon" lipstick, named after the American totem of breast cancer, a relative of the AIDS red-ribbon brooch; and with sales of that and other cancer-care focussed cosmetics in her various lines, she earned hundreds of thousand for her own breast cancer research centre at New York's Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (Lauder is a survivor as well as a fund-raiser). In December, Rupert Murdoch, socialite Lilly Tartikoff and Revlon head Ronald Perelman joined the frolic, hosting a Fire & Ice Ball in Los Angeles to benefit Women's Cancer Research, and the fever pitch has shown no signs of abating in the new year. In fact, this month, Harper's Bazaar has a lead article on Sex after Cancer, and a benefit record album, "Women for Women," will go on sale, boasting tracks by every lead female singer from newcomers Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow to veterans Tina Turner and Carly Simon - and providing a kind of sequel to Olivia Newton John's album on her own battle with the disease. There is no question: women's cancer is hot.

It is no accident that this high-profile campaign was launched in the US; the American obsession with health is legendary. But breast cancer is not a fear that anyone can dismiss lightly. It is the most common form of cancer in women in the United States, and it is the leading cause of death for women between the ages of 35 to 54. Last year, some 46,000 American women died of it, and an estimated 182,000 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in the United States. Given the gravity of the disease, it may seem surprising that it is the chic sartorial world that has taken up the cause; but in fact, the fashion world has been extremely aggressive, even revolutionary, in spreading the word about the dangers of modern epidemics, not out of trendiness, but out of self-interest.

In the Eighties, scores of the fashion industry's most creative and most promising designers fell victim to Aids - from Willie Smith to Perry Ellis, Patrick Kelly to Halston. Realising that the fashion industry was uniquely vulnerable to the ravages of Aids, the Council of Fashion Designers of America launched a benefit in 1990 called Sale on Seventh, a yearly bazaar at which shoppers buy designer-donated clothes at wholesale (and lower) prices. Since 1990 the Sale on Seventh has raised $7 million for the New York City Aids Fund and the National Aids Fund. Through such initiatives, the fashion industry had great success at destigmatising Aids and generating compassion for victims, so it was logical that in the last two years, as the CFDA increasingly felt the impact of breast cancer on its woman- dominated membership, it would decide to put its clout behind another epidemic. "Being in a women's industry, it is only fitting that we be concerned," designer Nicole Miller says.

The CFDA has been enthusiastically assisted in the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer initiative by virtually every major fashion magazine. Liz Tilberis's Harper's Bazaar is making special efforts, due to Tilberis's own battle with cancer. She hopes this season's attention to woman's cancer will help banish embarrassment over issues that women should be shouting about, rather than whispering over. "When I found out I had it," she says, "I didn't even know what an oncologist was." She is currently setting up a research programme to detect early signs of gynaecological cancers in women. "That would be my greatest achievement on earth."

Despite the good intentions of all concerned, there have been occasional slip-ups in the campaign. For instance, earlier this year, blonde covergirl Vendela had to step down as jacket model for the "Women for Women" album, after she appeared in a New York tabloid, coyly cupping her bare breasts with her hands, and explaining with reckless frankness, "We're especially trying to reach out to men, who are more likely to see a shocking image and say `Gross, I don't want to look at that.' I'm still healthy and won't put off men from thinking about breast cancer." Still, on the whole, the campaign deserves praise, not derision. Perhaps designer Rodney Vaughn Telford put it best, when he said, "Fashion is fantasy. Breast cancer is real."