Coronavirus Pandemic

Fashion folk join hands to make protective gear

Fashion designer Christian Siriano has asked his 10 seamstresses to make face masks.
Fashion designer Christian Siriano has asked his 10 seamstresses to make face masks.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Fashion designers and manufacturers are pivoting from making dresses, jeans and bathing suits to making surgical face masks and other protective gear - even as United States President Donald Trump addressed the country, saying unspecified help would be on the way for hospitals that expect to be overwhelmed and under-resourced.

Los Angeles Apparel is making surgical masks. On Monday, it began making hospital gowns as well. Mr Dov Charney, the company's founder and former head of American Apparel, hopes his 150,000 sq ft factory can produce 300,000 masks and 50,000 gowns in a week.

Fashion designer Christian Siriano has reassigned his 10 seamstresses in New York. They are beginning to make masks and hope to produce a few thousand a week.

Swimwear company Karla Colletto had closed its factory in Virginia, but planned to retool and reopen it shortly to help combat the critical shortage of personal protective equipment that faces hospitals and healthcare workers.

None of the three manufacturers is making N95 respirator masks - medical-grade protection recommended for medical professionals - although they are all responding to government calls for businesses to aid in combating the shortage of general medical supplies. Mr Charney and Siriano are each designing their own washable, reusable masks.

They are not medical-grade, although Siriano intends to make masks that meet the Food and Drug Administration standards as soon as he can acquire approved materials and patterns, and begin prototyping.

Karla Colletto is planning to replicate masks made by 3M, using patterns and fabric sent from that long-established hospital supplier.

The moves follow the decision by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the European luxury giant, and L'Oreal and Coty, the beauty conglomerates, to use their facilities to produce large quantities of hand sanitiser for European hospitals.

In Spain, Inditex, the parent company of Zara, is also looking into refitting its textile factories to make hospital gowns.

As an industry, fashion has been particularly affected by the mass business closings - and particularly active in offering resources to assist the fight against the coronavirus, stepping up as governments and the medical community scramble to respond to the crisis.

THE SIRIANO SITUATION

Last Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York issued an appeal during his daily news conference for businesses to "get creative" and manufacture protective equipment.

In response, Siriano tweeted: "If @NYGovCuomo says we need masks, my team will help make some. I have a full sewing team still on staff working from home that can help."

Siriano said he had been wondering how to help his employees, who were at home, and the chance to make masks was a way to keep them occupied and to give purpose to their work.

Since then, he has been in daily touch with the governor's office, he said, as they work out how the masks should be made.

He has 10 seamstresses who are working from home and are available to make the masks, which are intended for hospital support staff and private individuals.

The masks, which are made from a poly-lycra-cotton fabric that the company already had in the stockroom, are being tested according to regulations from the governor's office.

"They have to be white, so they can be bleached," Siriano said, noting that they also had to withstand multiple washings. He hopes to begin manufacturing the nonmedical-grade masks by Monday and projects he can produce 1,000 by the end of the week.

He is also hoping to get a special exemption to reopen his office to make the masks, after sanitising it and complying with official regulations, and is aiming to create medical-grade masks in the future.

THE VIEW FROM LOS ANGELES

On the West Coast, Mr Charney began manufacturing his masks a few weeks ago, when he became aware of the growing shortage in the market. Because his company produces largely T-shirts and other apparel for the music and merchandising industry, many of his employees already wear masks to protect themselves from the dust involved in textile-manufacturing.

He began to look into designing his own products and last week began production. "These are not N95 masks, but they are the equivalent of surgical masks," he said.

Made from a sweatshirt-like fabric, they fit closely over the face and are held on by two straps with a metal adjuster on the nose. They are intended for reuse, which surgical masks are not, and are intended to be washed in hot water.

Mr Charney is in talks with federal and municipal agencies to supply large quantities of the masks.

THE NEXT FRONTIER

Even beyond manufacturing, fashion companies are using their manufacturing networks to find masks.

Inditex and LVMH have used their distribution networks to gain access to Chinese manufacturers of face masks. LVMH announced last Saturday it had ordered 40 million face masks from a Chinese supplier, bound for France.

The first 10 million masks will begin arriving on Wednesday and are underwritten by Mr Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH.

Inditex had shipped 10,000 face masks from China and was expected to ship another 300,000.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2020, with the headline 'Fashion folk join hands to make protective gear'. Print Edition | Subscribe