Apparel Manufacturers Mobilized by Government to Fight Coronavirus

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, government agencies and apparel manufacturers have started working together to compensate for a shortfall in personal protective equipment such as face masks and hospital gowns.

On March 27, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a new public/private partnership named L.A. Protects to engage manufacturers in the creation of protective gear, he said.

“Our manufacturing sector is unmatched anywhere, and the ingenuity of working people will help us get through this emergency,” he said. “L.A. Protects will save people and save jobs.”

L.A. Protects is working with the sustainable brand Reformation and healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente to make 5 million nonmedical masks for those who need protection such as grocery-store workers and nonmedical staff in hospitals. Reformation will monitor mask production to maintain quality assurance. The City of Los Angeles will match approved manufacturers with industries in need of masks, Yael Aflalo, founder and chief executive officer of Reformation, said.

When alarms were raised about the coronavirus in the United States early in March, independent fashion designers and brands volunteered to make personal protective equipment for the public in addition to nonmedical workers and first responders working around those infected with the coronavirus. Other California manufacturers have rebooted their operations to make protective gear and have been working with governmental groups separate from the City of Los Angeles.

American Giant, headquartered in San Francisco, repurposed its manufacturing facilities in North Carolina to make medical masks that have been certified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Bayard Winthrop, the founder and president of American Giant.

Scott Wilson of Tour Image dba Ustrive Manufacturing has been in contact with the California governor’s office as well as Los Angeles representatives of the mayor and San Diego County to make personal protective equipment.

In addition to his work with government agencies, Wilson has been working with Kaiser Permanente to make surgical masks for the healthcare provider. On March 26 he received purchase orders to make surgical and nonsurgical masks. He declined to state the terms of the deal, which will last a minimum of four to six weeks, but he did say that his facility was responsible for making 250,000 masks daily. Kaiser executives helped his company get U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to make surgical face masks.

“Kaiser Permanente did a fantastic job,” Wilson said. “They pulled this all off in one week. They responded to getting us set up and getting approvals from the FDA in light speed.”

Kaiser Permanente contacted Ustrive earlier this month because it was looking for factories with high standards of safety and cleanliness, Wilson said. The Los Angeles–based Ustrive factory typically makes knitwear and received certifications from the Global Organic Textile Standard and Organic Content Standard in November. GOTS is the leading standard for certifying textiles made from organic fibers.

Due to the pandemic, the Ustrive factory had to follow stricter guidelines to keep workers safe. Before the pandemic, the factory’s 300 employees worked at stations that were an estimated three feet away from each other. Now workers are required to be stationed at least six feet away from each other. The reformatting of the factory floor has caused a drop in production capacity, Wilson said.

“It’s a lot of adjustment. We’re happy to do it. We got to keep workers healthy. If I lose one worker, I could potentially lose six at one time or even have to close,” he explained about the risks of the pandemic’s possible spread.

Kaiser sources and distributes to its manufacturing partners a medical-grade fabric made out of a woven, two-ply, bonded-wrap material for surgical masks. The fabric is manufactured in Asia, Wilson said. For other fabrics and materials, Ustrive is required to conduct its own sourcing. The market is getting tough. Demand for some materials has skyrocketed, Wilson said. For example, elastic, non-latex bands used to go over ears to fasten surgical masks are becoming hard to get. Prices for some mask components have doubled, he said.

Apparel-business veteran Alex Berenson got involved with a startup that is working to tackle the crisis. On March 22 he was named to helm the DMS Coalition, a Los Angeles–area company organizing manufacturers to work with the government to produce, distribute and wholesale washable, reusable masks; isolation gowns; sanitizers; face shields and a number of other protective items. Berenson said that there is a silver lining to mobilizing factories to make protective gear.

“There’s a global shortage [of personal protective equipment],” he said. “We’re trying to be the domestic solution. We’re going to be hiring sewers now at factories repurposed for PPE. We’re putting people back to work rather than having them sit at home.”

Berenson said that there had been talks with Los Angeles Apparel to work with the DMS Coalition. Dov Charney of Los Angeles Apparel confirmed the talks. Charney said that his facility has devoted 500 sewing machines to making masks. He forecasts that his label will remain in the mask-production business after this crisis is over. “We’ll always need masks,” he said.

The crisis could have long-lasting effects on domestic manufacturing. Wilson said it might be crucial for national safety to manufacture more medical supplies domestically. “There will be a shift. I think it will bring back work more so than anything in the past.”

Manufacturing nonsurgical face masks has completely replaced making apparel for some manufacturers. Almost all of the private-label orders that Mario De La Torre was working on in his downtown Los Angeles workshop dried up in early March due to the pandemic’s economic freeze.

De La Torre, with his business partner and wife Yvette Smith, had to scramble to find work. One of their friends who worked in hospital administration suggested making face masks. They later found connections who could supply materials for face masks such as 3M fabrics, he said. De La Torre designed some masks and worked with sewers who made the masks remotely.

Currently De La Torre has been donating masks to friends and people working with the public such as grocery workers and the police. He hopes to cover his costs and break even with production of 800 masks. It’s helped him stay active.

“I had to do something about this,” he said. “It’s not even about us anymore. It’s about the cause.”