Photo courtesy of Mario De La Torre

Photo courtesy of Mario De La Torre


Apparel Industry Finds Opportunities to Do Good Making COVID-19 Masks


Photo courtesy of Please Do Not Enter

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, scores of Los Angeles designers and apparel companies have shifted gears and started making nonmedical face masks. Many of them found new business leads as well as new purpose, and in the case of independent designer Mario De La Torre he forged a partnership with a group connected to a major retailer.

The Walmart Foundation donated $50,000 on April 24 to fund work for De La Torre’s Masks4Farmworkers campaign. With his wife and business partner, Evette Smith, De La Torre started the campaign in early April. They made face masks to protect farm workers from the elements and from the spread of COVID-19. Masks4Farmworkers was developed with the nonprofit organizations Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Justice for Migrant Women and the National Center for Farmworker Health, Inc.

De La Torre and Smith started the project after their business dried up in late March due to the pandemic’s economic freeze. They financed the project from their own savings to maintain the employment of their sewers.

“With this injection of capital, we’re going to put out tens of thousands of masks,” De La Torre said of the Walmart Foundation news. “I thought that we were only going to be able to do 10,000.”

Instead of merely employing 10 people, he’ll be able to employ 35. He also found a new direction for his company. Until recently, it did private-label lines for retailers and also produced runway fashion and office wear for the Mario De La Torre fashion label.

“Our new social responsibility will be to take care of farm workers. I’m going to continue to make masks as long as I have a career,” De La Torre said. “That is what we can do to play our part.”

Protecting L.A. from health and financial risks

On March 27, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the L.A. Protects program, which saw the city of Los Angeles partnering with Kaiser Permanente and the sustainable brand Reformation.L.A. Protects provided designs to companies, allowing businesses to make nonmedical face masks for people who work in jobs that require dealing with the public, such as grocery-store staff, as well as members of the general public.

Approximately 433 companies and designers joined L.A. Protects, which had the goal of making 5 million masks, according to a city spokeswoman. No city funds support the campaign, but companies participating receive leads that identify groups looking for masks. It’s still possible to enroll, according to a representative from the mayor’s office, and companies continue to join the campaign.

About a month after L.A. Protects started, the Los Angeles area has become a center of design for making nonmedical face masks. Price points for masks range from $10 to more than $27. Despite reports from these businesses that they are unable to match the revenue that they earned before the crisis, the nonmedical face masks are giving fashion companies new business opportunities as well as a head start on serving a new market. It also gives brands a chance to help the public and support other philanthropic projects.

Apparel brands big and small lend a helping hand

Other big companies within the apparel industry have embarked on mask-production projects to fulfill the need for these goods. The Vans apparel-and-footwear brand partnered with the Hedley & Bennett workwear and kitchen label to make more than 250,000 face masks out of canvas used for Vans shoes. The masks will be made in Hedley & Bennett’s facility in Vernon, Calif., just south of downtown Los Angeles. Masks will be donated to organizations around Los Angeles. Vans also has partnered with designer Michael Schmidt to produce medical face shields. Vans 18-inch shoelaces were supplied to fasten the shields.

Boutique retailers also have gotten into the campaign to make face masks. Please Do Not Enter has sold art-inspired fashion in downtown Los Angeles since 2014.

“In Asia, it has been an everyday accessory for years. It has become a statement and a fashion accessory,” Libert said. “You have to wear it for health reasons. It’s so visible. But you also have to express something.”

His brand started developing prototypes for face masks prior to the coronavirus outbreak. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Please Do Not Enter had a mask with the shop’s logo placed over the mouth, Libert said.

“Please Do Not Enter has an added meaning when you put it on a mask. You’re warning the virus not to enter,” he said. The first run of masks sold out in two days. They are made of American cotton and manufactured in Los Angeles. Proceeds are donated to the nonprofit Baby2Baby, which gives supplies to families affected by COVID-19.

Maya Reynolds, an independent downtown–Los Angeles designer, started brainstorming face-mask designs after reading news about the need for masks. She wanted to give masks to friends, but she also saw a business opportunity.

“There’s a ton of demand out there. We don’t know how long this thing is going to run,” Reynolds said. “Masks will be required for a long time, and people will need some variety in their lives.”

Medical professionals she consulted wanted a product similar to the N95 mask used by surgeons. Masks had to be form fitting. She created a design that she calls the Breathe mask. A feature of the mask simulates a dome around the mouth, keeping fabric away from the area for comfort. She has been selling them on her Maya Reynolds page. Donations are made to the reforestation nonprofit One Tree Planted.

Making a new product requires a lot of trial and error, said Tony Shamtobi, president and co-owner of Labeltex. The company just started shipping face masks made from his Los Angeles–area factory. They were produced after about a month of shifting the factory’s capabilities, which included mechanics modifying Labeltex looms to make the masks. It was frustrating having to wait while demand was exploding.

“I never lost hope,” he said.” “We had to do something that would help, so everyone would have masks.”

Once Labeltex started distributing masks, orders came in, allowing the company to rehire 15 workers.

Shamtobi’s modified looms make tightly knit polyester material and workers apply antibacterial liquid onto the fabric. Labeltex also prints company logos on the three-layer masks or icons such as the United States flag and peace signs.

Making masks has required manufacturers to follow a lot of new safety rules, which include social distancing between workers. Shamtobi said that workers are kept 20 feet apart at the Labeltex factory.

Elaine Tran, owner of the Dippin’ Daisy’s swimwear brand, has been making face masks out of swimwear fabric. Along with social distancing, workers have to sanitize their stations twice a day with alcohol wipes. She said that 70 of her 100 workers make face masks. It’s worth the extra effort.

“I had to furlough a lot of office staff,” Tran said. “I did not want to furlough in-house sewers. I’m their only source of income.”

Tran and other manufacturers said that they forecast they will be in the face-mask business for a while. Dov Charney of Los Angeles Apparel makes masks out of a thick jersey material. He said that the mask business is here to stay. “These masks are now part of American culture,” he said.

The broad initiative to make more nonsurgical face masks continues to build momentum. Brother International Corp. recently announced the donation of approximately 100 industrial sewing machines to domestic manufacturers who are making personal protective equipment, including Beverly Knits, Inc., SanMar, Brooks Brothers and Los Angeles Apparel. Charney said that his sewers have been using the Brother machines to make masks. “Every little bit helps,” he said. “We’re very thankful.”