Fashion Designers Are Struggling To Make Masks. Here's Why

30 March 2020
Health, Covid-19, Face-mask, Coronavirus, Designer
Image: Getty Images

Designers hoping to join the coronavirus fight say that the process is riddled with hurdles and a lack of clarity. But federal guidance won’t fix a fragile American fashion ecosystem

Late last week, New York governor Andrew Cuomo put out an open call to businesses willing to “get creative” to make protective equipment for the fight against coronavirus. New York womenswear designer Christian Siriano tweeted that, if Cuomo needed masks, his sewing team was willing to help. “We need companies to be creative to supply the crucial gear our healthcare workers need,” Cuomo tweeted a few minutes later. “NY will pay a premium and offer funding.” Cuomo’s message included two phone numbers—one for businesses that needed funding, another for those who had unused supplies to donate—and added an email address 90 minutes later because, he wrote, “Call volume is high.” The idea seemed to hold promise on two levels: This would be a way for designers to help stop the spread of coronavirus—and to keep themselves afloat by doing so.

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At a moment when hospitals around the country are facing a shortfall of both N95 and surgical masks, New York has been particularly hard hit. The chair of the department of surgery at Columbia University Irving Medical Center wrote in a memo last week that employees in his hospital will each receive one non-N95 mask, theoretically to be used “only if the person becomes symptomatic.” He added that “employees will be responsible for keeping their one mask clean and available.” The shortage goes far beyond New York, however, with doctors across the United States issuing calls for more protective gear.

But the designers who took up the call tell GQ they now find themselves facing manufacturing quandaries, with some stalled by unclear guidelines and a lack of access to medical-grade fabrics. Designers say they have yet to hear from Cuomo’s office regarding the funding and are working independently (though Siriano confirmed to the Times that he has been in regular contact with the governor’s office). The masks that designers, including Siriano, Dov Charney’s Los Angeles Apparel, Hertling, and the consumer fabric store JOANN, are currently making are cotton, which is not a medical-grade fabric. (Designers who are making such masks have begun to emphasize that they are “non-surgical”; Neiman Marcus’s Tuesday announcement that they are partnering with JOANN to make masks, gowns, and scrubs noted that “the CDC has stated that homemade fabric masks are a crisis response option when other supplies have been exhausted.”) The Centers for Disease Control lists homemade masks such as these on its website as “a last resort,” adding that “their capability to protect [healthcare professionals] is unknown.”

As of press time, Cuomo’s office had not responded for requests for comment. This story will be updated with his office’s response.

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But even in the effort to make last-resort masks, designers are also working alone, relying on their own research and the advice of friends and medical experts within their own networks. If the fashion industry and New York City’s Garment District are to make a meaningful impact on the shortage and keep their lights on in the process, designers and manufacturers say, some sort of organizational oversight is necessary. Still, guidance from fashion-industry groups or Cuomo’s office might not be enough: As Cuomo said in his Sunday press briefing, voluntary efforts to make masks and other personal protective equipment, or PPE, will continue to be stalled unless President Donald Trump enacts the Domestic Production Act (DPA), which allows the federal government to require companies to up production of critical supplies. (It might also be used to mandate companies to make ventilators, for example.) The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday afternoon that the DPA would be applied to create more test kits, and that “DPA language” would be inserted into the mass contracts for masks already in place, which does not include these smaller scale fashion-industry efforts. Later that evening, the agency's press secretary announced a change in position, stating, “At the last minute we were able to procure the test kits from the private market without evoking the DPA,” and added that the DPA language for the mask contracts was “still being worked through.”

For some designers working on their own, the lack of consensus was exasperating. “We should have a centralized voice,” says Naomi Mishkin, the Brooklyn-based designer of the line Naomi Nomi, who spent the weekend working with her manufacturing partners in the Garment District to identify the best materials and design for a mask. “If the [government] wants to lead the way, we should let them, but we’re waiting.”

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Even in the best of worlds, most fashion designers lack the supplies and manufacturing capabilities required to make N95 respirators. Named for their ability to block 95 percent of micron test particles through a seal around the nose and mouth, they are the preferred masks for medical workers treating patients with the virus—and remain in alarmingly short supply. Industrial manufacturers have stepped up to address the deficiency. Earlier this week, Honeywell announced that they would increase production of N95 masks, with the manufacturer planning to hire about 500 people in the next week, and last week, 3M said it had doubled production over the last two months. The United States Department of Health and Human Services intends to place an order for 500 million of these masks, which they say will be delivered to hospitals over the next 18 months.

As for the mass production of surgical masks, a consortium of garment-manufacturing companies, led by Parkdale Mills America, the North Carolina–based yarn manufacturer, is partnering with Hanes and the federal government to retrofit their factory facilities to begin mask production. They are expected to turn out five to six million masks per week.

Europe’s fashion and manufacturing industries have been quicker to respond to their own mask shortages: Kering, Prada, and LVMH have announced plans to manufacture or purchase masks. But in the United States, it is hard to identify an equivalent fashion conglomerate with access to an extensive network of factories. Nor have the major U.S. fashion brands stepped up (aside from L.L.Bean, which has partnered with a local Maine foodbank), as New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman pointed out. Mishkin explains that a number of designers she has spoken with have been unable to join the mask-production movement because they have no domestic manufacturing, instead relying on samples and production manpower in China; only about 3 percent of clothing sold in America is manufactured here. Ralph Lauren, for example, makes much of its clothing in Italy and China, and Tommy Hilfiger also manufactures its clothing abroad. “I would love to make everything in America if I could find the factories,” Hilfiger told Bloomberg in 2017. “They don’t exist here in America.”

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And so the fashion brands producing the masks are, for the most part, more modestly staffed businesses with domestic manufacturing connections. Guided only by the CDC’s rudimentary instructions, they find themselves struggling to source materials from the often unfamiliar vendors who sell these industrial, or medical-grade, fabrics. “For masks, you really should be using some sort of nonwoven fabric,” explains Gabrielle Ferrara, a partner in Ferrara Manufacturing, a Garment District firm founded by her parents in 1987 that is one of the largest high-end women’s clothing factories in the United States, according to its website, and is now making masks. “Cotton, for example, doesn’t have the filtration properties that maybe polyester or maybe some of the nonwovens might have.” But, she notes, it’s hard for fashion companies to get ahold of those fabrics. “They’re not really from your typical fashion vendors. We need to do a little more work collectively to get those materials because they’re not part of the regular fashion ecosystem.”

If last-resort masks are what smaller-scale American designers are able to produce, that’s what they’ll do—they just want to make sure that their contributions are as effective as possible. “The CDC is saying ‘worst-case scenario’ [masks] will work,” says Mishkin. “However, if you have access to a hundred seamstresses, putting them to work, making cotton masks today? We feel that our efforts are better spent looking for the correct material.”

Designers who are beginning to source medical-grade fabric are doing so with impromptu oversight cobbled from their own network of friends and medical experts. Justin Christensen is the CEO of the Brooklyn-based trouser company Hertling, which makes its own line and produces pants for high-fashion brands including Bode. Late last week, he began making masks from the cotton material he usually uses to line trousers, and has been sharing images of prototypes, including the first batch of 500 masks produced over the weekend, on the company’s Instagram. On Monday morning, Christensen says, “I got a tag from a fabric distributor that follows us. They said, ‘Give me a call—I have a contact for the medical-grade material in Pennsylvania, ready to ship.’ ”

View this post on Instagram

Basic single-layer, cotton washable face masks available to buy now, DM if interested. Minimum 50 masks @ $10/each, 1-for-1 model. We’ll ship you what you buy and we’ll donate the same quantity locally to a NY hospital, working with NYC officials and other designated organizations to distribute. This is the just the beginning, so any purchases now will enable us to develop and invest time and funds into materials and designs. Since we are funding this ourselves without government support we need to focus our efforts and manage costs, including limited manpower, carefully. This mask is made as with a single layer, 100% cotton fabric (we typically use this for pocketing in our trousers). This is washable and comes in 2 sizes- small (which fits kids and smaller adult heads) and large (what I’m wearing in this photo, seems to fit most people). It has 2 elastic ear wraps for easy on and off usage. This is NOT one of the high filtration medical grade respirator masks, but it is a step up from a bandana, which is last resort option in this emergency situation. We are working out design features such as a metal nose piece for comfort and shape around nose, as well as double layer of cotton with or without fusible interface for additional protection, possibly with a pocket for an additional filter to slide in. We will also be receiving the medical grade polypropylene non-woven material (used in surgical masks, diapers, bandaids, etc) which have a higher filtration rating, to develop single use masks, possibly at a lower price. Additionally we will begin prototyping isolation gowns and surgical caps tomorrow. It is developing fast hour by hour, so purchases will solve some needs out there now and help us ramp up efforts faster. None of this is on our own btw, numerous people contact us daily to offer input and connections (friends, customers, vendors, followers, local government, other brands and factories) so that we all can develop and serve more people faster. It’s an incredible community effort, and I know we are just a tiny part of it. #covid_19 #weareinthistogether #brooklyn #hertling #madeinusa #madeinbrooklyn

A post shared by HERTLING (@hertlingusa) on

The supplier told Christensen that he doesn’t usually deal in small quantities like the kind Christensen had wanted to order, so he sent Christensen a sample roll, which is 100 pounds, free of charge. Christensen paid for the freight. It arrived Tuesday, and he plans to share it with another manufacturer producing masks. “That amount will allow us to make [more than] 5,000 masks,” he says. He adds that given the CDC guidelines on the masks, it might be more feasible to produce gowns—a thought echoed by Mishkin. (Maxwell, Charney, and others are also making gowns.) But because the mask shortage is more dire, many remain committed to at least experimenting with making them.

Even if designers are able to source the right materials, the challenges of making the masks and supplying them to hospitals are insurmountable without larger institutions, whether in the government or within the fashion industry, providing oversight and streamlining efforts. For a brand of Mishkin’s scale, simply fronting the money to produce the masks, as designers like Siriano are doing, is not feasible; she would require the funding Cuomo alluded to in order to move forward. Mishkin says that she reached out to Cuomo’s office on Friday after speaking with her suppliers and manufacturers in the Garment District, but has yet to hear back.

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The funding is a major conundrum for larger brands too. Siriano told the Times he is simply donating the masks he produces, though he acknowledges that plan is not sustainable. Christensen, meanwhile, is making masks available to consumers for $10 a mask at a 50-piece minimum, and will donate an equal amount to hospitals. (Medical experts have stressed that otherwise healthy individuals do not need to wear masks, which will not protect them from getting the virus.) In contrast, Amazon was selling a 100-pack of sanitary masks for $8 in late February before it removed hundreds of thousands of masks to combat price-gouging. Christensen acknowledges the sensitivity to price-gouging but added, “I want people to know, we’re only charging as much as we need to cover the cost to do this and keep the lights on here.” About five of his employees are working, at the CDC-recommended six feet apart.

The lack of clarity around the definition of essential businesses—the ones allowed to keep working through the pandemic—has been another factor keeping Mishkin from moving forward with her plans to make masks. Christensen explains that, while he hasn’t been able to reach Cuomo’s office or the mayor’s, he’s been in touch with other local officials informally. “People within those circles are telling us, ‘Keep going,’” he says. “‘It’ll take a while for [an official] to get back to you, most likely, but you’re doing the right thing and we support you.’” They advised him that he could continue to stay open because “we are now a manufacturer producing sanitary products.” Under the state’s guidelines, that makes his an essential business.

Ultimately, the hurdles and lack of clarity around the effort to make masks and other much-needed equipment underscore the fragility of the American fashion system—notably its lack of strong centralized oversight and its reliance on overseas manufacturing, factors that have stung young designers in the past but are now impacting the industry at every level.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America, the trade association that represents American fashion designers, is another possible organizational resource. When asked whether they planned to help organize the sprawling efforts around the production of masks and gowns, the CFDA’s program manager, Cal McNeil, explained by email that the group “has been focused primarily on connecting the industry with the most relevant contacts, information, and resources to ensure lines of communication are open and the key stakeholders at both the New York City and New York state levels are aware of who is available to help.” McNeil noted that the CFDA has been working closely with the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and added that the CFDA asks “those who are contributing to the PPE production to ensure they are producing goods that can be of use to the most critical groups such as medical professionals or those on the front lines of fighting this virus,” in what seems like an oblique nod to the fact that many designer-made masks do not meet the CDC’s certifications for protective equipment. The CFDA also announced on Tuesday morning “A Common Thread,” a media-based fundraising effort, in partnership with Vogue, to assist designers and those “behind the scenes” whose livelihoods are impacted by the pandemic.

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But the state government and industry groups can only do so much. Mishkin and Ferrara spoke in support of the implementation of the Defense Production Act Hospitals and politicians, including Cuomo, have also called on Trump to enact the DPA more forcefully and invite other manufacturers beyond those he has engaged into the fold, saying that a state of national emergency is no moment for market-based competition. In his Sunday press briefing, Cuomo said, “If I had the power, I would do it in New York state because the situation is that critical. I think the federal government should order factories to manufacture masks, gowns, ventilators, the essential medical equipment that is going to make a difference between life and death.” Trump has rejected these calls for more organized, federally mandated production, comparing the act to “nationalization.” On Tuesday, after a FEMA administrator said it would be implemented to make tests and masks, Trump said the government in fact had not “found it to be the case” that the law was necessary.

In other times, such manufacturing challenges might inspire designers, but right now they seem more like discouraging roadblocks. “A lot of the medical-grade raw-material vendors that exist in the United States—why can’t we ask them to supply material right away?” says Ferrara. “Why do we have to go through this sourcing exercise of reaching out to them, and they have licensing deals that prevent them from selling material to us?” Without a stronger federal mandate, it seems that the material designers have the most access to is red tape.


Via GQ