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Fashion brands are making face masks, medical gowns for the coronavirus crisis

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 3/24/2020 By Ingrid Schmidt, Los Angeles Times

The COVID-19 crisis has caused fashion and textile companies, including ones in Los Angeles, to refocus their businesses and align with a common goal: to address the urgent need for face masks and hospital gowns.

This deficiency includes medical-grade N95 masks to filter about 95% of airborne particles as well as reusable cloth masks, which offer a layer of protection to food workers and senior citizens as well as anyone going out to the grocery store.

Major fashion brands are stepping in to help gather or make these much-needed supplies. LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton announced Saturday that it would obtain 40 million medical-grade face masks from a Chinese industrial supplier to distribute to French health authorities. Italian brand Prada shared Monday that it's producing a run of 80,000 overalls and 110,000 face masks at one of its factories for Italian medical personnel.

French luxury conglomerate Kering will produce face masks in the workshops of its brands Balenciaga, Gucci and Saint Laurent. Also in Europe, the Stockholm-based H&M Group announced that it would make masks, while Spanish fast-fashion brand Zara will produce hospital gowns and masks.

Back in the U.S., American fashion and textile brands are joining the efforts to help combat the coronavirus. The Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Textile Organizations announced last week that a coalition of American fashion and textile brands had come together to produce masks as well. Those 10 businesses includes California companies American Giant, Los Angeles Apparel and AST Sportswear Inc. as well as brands such as HanesBrand and Fruit of the Loom.

On Tuesday, the Council of Fashion Designers of America announced that the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund was introducing a fundraising enterprise, A Common Thread, to assist fashion businesses jolted by COVID-19. Steven Kolb, president and chief executive of the council, told The Times on Monday: "Masks, gloves and isolation gowns are in dire shortage at this moment, and many luxury brands have available resources to create these. ... [The] CFDA has been in touch with over 50 brands looking to create [personal protective equipment]."

Already, New York fashion designer Kerby Jean-Raymond has established an initiative, Your Friends in New York, and dedicated $50,000 to the cause, to assist women and minority-owned small creative businesses and distribute needed medical supplies. The designer posted on Instagram that his fashion label Pyer Moss has converted its headquarters into a center to house donations of masks, gloves and gowns.

New York fashion designer and "Project Runway" host Christian Siriano jumped in early to help with the crisis by tweeting New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. A brand representative told The Times on Monday that Siriano has prototypes of masks that are pending government approval. On his website on Sunday, Siriano posted original sketches and paintings of models in tulle gowns with matching face masks that have fetched $295 to $895.

In addition to Siriano's efforts, fellow New York-based designer Brandon Maxwell (who also announced he will give away three bridal gowns to brides affected by the crisis), along with L.A. brands Citizens of Humanity, Hedley & Bennett and Michael Costello, are pivoting to gown and mask production.

Meanwhile, fashion labels Rachel Comey, Prabal Gurung and Irvine-based St. John Knits are sourcing materials and creating patterns to ready their facilities to help after they receive the green light from the U.S. government.

Here's how some Los Angeles fashion designers and brands are helping in the COVID-19 crisis.

Michael Costello

Costello created a washable face mask in a black, cotton-nylon stretch fabric, which he is personally producing, along with two seamstresses, at a rate of about 150 per day at his atelier in downtown Los Angeles. Costello is working to enroll other Los Angeles designers (so far, that effort includes Ashton Michael, Michael Ngo and Bryan Hearns) to join him in his goal of producing at least 20,000 masks to donate to healthcare facilities.

In a post Monday on Instagram, Costello offered to send a pattern and a list of materials to anyone who wants to help from home.

"I'm trying to produce as many masks as I can with fabrics that we have in stock — cotton, neoprene and nylon — and I have researched fabrics that are OK to use, with higher air filtration effectiveness rates," Costello said.

Costello said he's in talks with a friend from high school, who manufactures surgical-grade masks in Calabasas at the rate of 60,000 per hour, according to the designer. The designer also said another friend, Beverly Hills-based eyebrow guru Anastasia Soare, is willing to offer space in her warehouse to help amp up production, while City Business Shipping in downtown Los Angeles has agreed to waive shipping fees.

"I'm not looking for any fame, publicity, money. If I can just provide some funding for the seamstresses who have been so loyal to me for years, that's my ultimate goal here," Costello said. "At a time like this, I'm trying to force myself to be creative. Because if we can't do what we love, let's do what we can."

AST Sportswear Inc.

Abdul Rashid, chief operating office of AST Sportswear Inc. in Brea, said his company began to produce reusable cotton face masks last Wednesday to donate to hospitals and healthcare facilities "strictly at our own cost." The company shipped 1,000 masks Monday morning, free of charge, to the office of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

AST has already donated more than 5,000 masks to hospitals, healthcare facilities and nursing homes in California as well as in Michigan, Texas, Nevada and other states. It plans to donate an additional 50,000 by the end of this week.

"Up until Wednesday, I only made T-shirts," said Rashid. "We had to readjust many of our machines. Last Friday, I had 30 new machines delivered to me and I have 80 more machines coming this week."

Starting Monday, through a Federal Emergency Management Agency project, the company will additionally produce 250,000 units per week of a face mask design approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Hanes is manufacturing the fabric, which has an antimicrobial chemical added in the finishing process, that we will receive by the end of this week."

Los Angeles Apparel

Dov Charney, chief executive of Los Angeles Apparel, said his company began to manufacture washable face masks five weeks ago at the 150,000-square-foot headquarters on East 59th Street in Florence. He noticed a shortage early. Now, more than 400 employees are making the masks and medical gowns.

The Los Angeles Apparel cotton mask is available for purchase ($30 for a pack of three in black, white or yellow with purple trim at losangelesapparel.net). The company is also selling wholesale to other businesses such as Albertsons and Pavilions. Charney has additionally donated thousands of masks to organizations in need.

He said he sent a shipment by Uber to San Diego and has received calls from nurses and healthcare facilities in L.A., Seattle, New York and Las Vegas.

"We spent a long time trying to find the right fit. I spoke to a lot of scientists and doctors," Charney saidof his design, which has a metal nose piece. (The company will also soon produce the textile masks designed for the FEMA project.) "We're buying hundreds of machines, and I'm hiring hundreds of people. I hope by next week, if I really hit it hard, I'll make 50,000 and then, the next week, we'll try to get it to 100,000. The reality is that the United States needs about one billion textile masks, because the N95 is not comfortable and you need to change it several times a day. A textile mask you can keep. It's kind of last resort but, at the same time, it's like a pair of jeans. You can use it again."

Hedley & Bennett

Ellen Bennett, founder and chief executive of Hedley & Bennett, a workwear company that makes uniforms and aprons in the Vernon neighborhood of Los Angeles, is now producing face masks at her 16,000-square-foot facility. In collaboration with Dr. Robert H. Cho, chief of staff at Shriners for Children Medical Center in Pasadena, Bennett has designed a washable, cotton chambray face mask with an inner pocket that can hold a filter supplied by the wearer.

"Not everyone has access to a HEPA filter, but there are many household materials that can help to filter viral particles — vacuum cleaner bags filter almost as well as a surgical mask does, and they are cheap and plentiful," Cho said. "Almost every hospital has run out of N95 masks. In the hospital, we have plenty of breathable, filtration materials that can be cut to fit inside this mask. I have seen a lot of people reusing N95 masks, but they are disposable and only meant to be worn for eight hours. If you use an N95 mask incorrectly and are not fit-tested, it can be worse than not wearing a mask, as all the air goes straight to your mouth."

Hedley & Bennett has donated masks to Shriners and is in talks with the Memphis, Tenn.-based St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. It also has thousands of masks in production for World Central Kitchen, celebrity chef José Andrés' nonprofit foundation.

On Monday, Hedley & Bennett posted a retail pre-order that would allow someone to buy one mask for $22 and have a second one donated. However, orders overtook capacity. Now the company is capping pre-orders by email at 1,000 daily.

"Our team is ramping up to be able to make thousands of units per week," Bennett said. "We are marching forward starting today, and we are having to activate on a grassroots level right now like never before, which is why we called it the Wake Up & Fight Mask. ... We just have to do what we can to contribute to this, even if we're not a giant company."

Citizens of Humanity

After shutting down its Huntington Park production facilities on Friday evening, Amy Williams, chief executive of Citizens of Humanity, said the company has switched gears to create a face mask prototype out of 100% cotton (created for her own workers), which she sent to City of Hope, Cedars-Sinai, Stanford Children's Hospital, UCLA Health and other organizations. One version of the mask can be used over an N95 mask or worn separately.

A second prototype also includes a filter insertion pocket. Williams said she's waiting to hear back from Garcetti's office on a standardized mask design, which is being approved by a USC doctor.

Williams said the company has received orders from San Francisco nonprofit Family House, which helps families of children with cancer, and upscale L.A. natural foods grocer Erewhon Market. The masks are being sold at the cost of production to nonprofit businesses (with fabric donated) and a higher price to for-profit businesses to help subsidize the price of fabrics and trims. For now, 15 seamstresses are at work on the masks.

"Our factory is used to producing over 75,000 pairs of jeans each month, which are much more labor-intensive, so I think we can produce up to 150,000 masks a week," said Williams, adding that gowns and other items might be next.

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