Boehringer goes bold with 'unwearable' fashion to spotlight patients' rare skin disease pain

It feels like a paper cut, but multiplied by 10,000. Or being stabbed with a bunch of knives over and over again.

Those excruciating descriptions from real patients with generalized pustular psoriasis (GPP) are the inspiration behind Boehringer Ingelheim’s “Unwearable Collection,” which aims to shed light on the rare and painful skin disease.

Boehringer enlisted Dutch artist Bart Hess, who designed Lady Gaga’s “slime dress” for her "Born This Way" album shoot, to create the unusual campaign centerpiece: a macabre clothing line that “nobody would ever want to wear.”

BI worked with creative agency Area 23 to develop the campaign and recruited Hess to create four eight-foot-tall mannequins outfitted in fashions born from his conversations with GPP patients.

“Fashion can help express who we want to be. This time it will explain how people with GPP are forced to be,” Hess says in the campaign video, where he reveals his creations to a visibly moved patient. 

The video shows one mannequin encased with jagged shards of broken glass, symbolizing the isolation patients feel, while another appears engulfed in red-orange flames. A third mannequin is covered head to toe in sheets of paper, representing the agony of the aforementioned paper cuts. Another is embraced by a boa made from razor blades.

Although the campaign is unbranded, it comes as the German pharma eyes its first dermatology approval with a potential FDA nod for its IL-36R inhibitor spesolimab. The FDA granted a priority review of the drug last December. If approved, it would become the first drug on the market specifically for GPP flares. 

The company knew it needed to go bold to stand out in the crowded psoriasis space, said Claudia Beqaj, Boehringer’s executive director of dermatology. The indication includes big DTC advertisers like AbbVie’s Skyrizi, Novartis’ Cosentyx, Amgen’s Enbrel, Johnson & Johnson’s Tremfya and others that are often prescribed off-label for GPP.

“We wanted to break through all the noise and do something really eye-catching and thought provoking, and to really try to highlight all of the aspects that make [GPP] different from other forms of psoriasis,” she said.

Unlike plaque psoriasis, GPP is caused by the accumulation of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, in the skin. It causes eruptions of painful pustules and red, inflamed skin all over the body and can be life-threatening. Because the disease is so rare, BI’s pre-launch strategy focuses on educating HCPs and getting them to view GPP patients separately from their more common plaque psoriasis patients, said Beqaj. 

“We know that these patients are out there, and it’s really up to us to find them and elevate them in the eyes of the physician,” she explained.

Boehringer debuted the collection last week at the American Academy of Dermatology Annual Meeting in Boston and will continue showing it at medical congresses and promoting it on social media throughout the year. The drugmaker also is exploring displaying the pieces in a museum or gallery.

Judging from the buzz at the dermatology meeting, the collection is already making the desired impact, said Beqaj.

“People would meet me [at the conference] and say, ‘Oh, you’re the one with that art collection … I was told I have to go see it because it was so incredible,’” she said.