running game

Houston entrepreneur levels the playing field for female runners with new activewear line

Debbie Mercer, a Houston entrepreneur, has designed articles of clothing to empower female athletes. Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

It was race day for avid marathon runner, Debbie Mercer. She and her race pack got up early on a brisk winter's day in Chicago, Illinois, piling on warm layers over their compression tights, to run the Chicago Marathon.

Miles into the race, Mercer and her friends made a pit stop at the portable bathrooms. The female runners stood in long lines, awaiting their turns to do their business behind closed doors, while their male friends resorted to quickly and discreetly ducking behind the porta-potties, or finding nearby trees. Precious time ticked by as the women watched their male counterparts continue the race.

"I remember thinking 'I wish there was some way that we could do that too,'" Mercer recalls.

The Houstonian created Zip Hers, an activewear brand that has a full-length zipper lining the bikini area of each pant, to accommodate on-the-go women. The Zip Hers concept and design was intended to level the playing field for women and men when it comes to competitive sports.

"If we're wasting time on a bathroom break and they're not, that holds us back…Maybe it's our little tiny contribution to women's equality. We just really want to help women be the best that they can be," Mercer says.

From full-length pants and tights, to 3-inch compression or loose shorts, Zip Hers has established an array of products suitable active women. However, it was a long and winding road to producing such innovative, high-quality products that could be competitive in such a vast industry of activewear, according to Mercer.

Zip Hers in the making

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Mercer kicked off prototype production in 2016. She jumped around to various designers and manufacturers, turning away samples that didn't quite fit her vision for the product. Part of the challenge, Mercer describes, was finding a manufacturer who could manipulate stretch and non-stretch fabric in high-quality ways. Maintaining maximum comfort and a sleek design were challenges when the new variable of a zipper was thrown into the mix.

"It took us a while to get the zipper design perfect so that it would fit well and have a design that was comfortable," Mercer says. "We had to find the right manufacturer to find the skill to make these. We found one in Dallas and one in Houston."

Through trial and error, the Zip Hers design team produced a smooth design that coexists seamlessly with the delicate areas that sit around the zipper. They created a custom-made zipper pull, an invisible, thin disk embossed with the Zip Hers logo.

"Women can easily grab it when they're squatting, and don't have to struggle to find it… you can't even tell that a zipper is there. It's very sleek," Mercer says. "They're all handmade. We have to have special fabric for the panels and…have to have special machines to get the seams just right."

By September 2019, the Zip Hers prototype was finalized and officially launched via the company's online retail site.

Game changers

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Zip Hers products, the first of their kind, are sure to change the game for female marathon runners, hikers and any other outdoor activity fanatics, Mercer says. With so many athletic brands available on the internet, Mercer hopes that Zip Hers' innovative approach to active wear, and the unique opportunity they offer to women, will help set the brand apart.

"We really don't see any other products out there like ours…As far as apparel goes, we're the only one," Mercer says.

Since launching last year, Zip Hers has watched their clientele expand with predominantly long distance runners and adventure goers. With the 'athleisure' trend on the rise, they're also seeing more women buying leisurewear for yoga classes, or indoor casual use. Mercer says that she hopes Zip Hers will continue to expand to reach female fishers, hunters, climbers, and even first responders, so that women never have to take off their duty belts.

From various race-day experiences of waiting in long bathroom lines as precious time ticks by, to when nature calls during outdoor activities involving co-ed company, Mercer confronted women's realities by proposing an empowering solution for women.

"Ultimately, it gives women a choice. What's more empowering for women than the power to choose what's best for them?" Mercer says.

Houston's Nobel Prize winner, Jim Allison, is the star of Breakthrough, which premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App. Photo via SXSW.com

Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, our current coronavirus heroes are donning face masks as they save lives. One local health care hero has a different disease as his enemy, and you'll soon be able to stream his story.

Dr. James "Jim" Allison won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in battling cancer by treating the immune system — rather than the tumor. Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center, has quietly and often, singularly, waged war with cancer utilizing this unique approach.

The soft-spoken trailblazer is the subject of an award-winning documentary, Jim Allison: Breakthrough, which will air on PBS and its streaming channels on Monday, April 27 at 9 pm (check local listings for channel information). Lauded as "the most cheering film of the year" by the Washington Post, the film follows Allison's personal journey to defeat cancer, inspired and driven by the disease killed his mother.

Breakthrough is narrated by Woody Harrelson and features music by Willie Nelson, adding a distinct hint of Texana. (The film was a star at 2019's South by Southwest film festival.) The documentary charts Alice, Texas native as he enrolls at the University of Texas, Austin and ultimately, cultivates an interest in T cells and the immune system — and begins to frequent Austin's legendary music scene. Fascinated by the immune system's power to protect the body from disease, Allison's research soon focuses on how it can be used to treat cancer.

Viewers will find Allison charming, humble, and entertaining: the venerable doctor is also an accomplished blues harmonica player. Director Bill Haney weaves Allison's personal story with the medical case of Sharon Belvin, a patient diagnosed with melanoma in 2004 who soon enrolled in Allison's clinical trials. Belvin has since been entirely cancer-free, according to press materials.

"We are facing a global health challenge that knows no boundaries or race or religion, and we are all relying on gifted and passionate scientists and healthcare workers to contain and ultimately beat this thing," said Haney, in a statement. "Jim Allison and the unrelenting scientists like him are my heroes – and I'll bet they become yours!"

Jim Allison: Breakthrough premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.