Fashion Designers Are Struggling to Make Masks. Here’s Why.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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