On April 5, I paid $13.99 for an LED sound-activated face party mask on Amazon that glows in time to the beat. It was one of the few under-$20 masks available that offered Prime shipping. What I bought is not a medical mask. The neon design offers no specific filtration protection from Covid-19. But technically, this rave mask is government approved.
As of two days earlier, the CDC’s Covid-19 guidelines suggested that people wear “simple cloth face coverings” to cover their nose and mouth to help “slow the spread of the virus.” N95 masks are no longer supposed to be worn by the general public as priority shifts to frontline workers, who are experiencing a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, surgical gloves, and gowns.
In fact, there are so few N95 masks to go around that the U.S. government has resorted to piracy at airport customs and tried to bribe and threaten suppliers for more. On Google, searches for “where to buy a face mask” are the highest ever since, well, the creation of Google. Even regular cloth masks are in such short supply that the U.S. surgeon general uploaded a YouTube video where he gave instructions on how to make a DIY mask at home using an old T-shirt and elastics.
Amid this drought, it seems there’s hardly a fashion or apparel brand that hasn’t stepped up to retool its production lines to help — pumping out face masks, both medical- and consumer-grade. The dozens include couture big shots Prada, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Dior along with seemingly every mall brand in America — Gap, Zara, Brooks Brothers, Eddie Bauer, and Eileen Fisher. Then there are the niche designers Johnny Was, American Giant, and Lilly Pulitzer; tiny indie brands like Youphoria Festivalwear and Lesley Evers; and Etsy, which has been flooded with DIY vendors. In Pennsylvania, Fanatics, which manufactures uniforms for Major League Baseball players, is turning its jersey fabric into face masks and hospital gowns. Even Dov Charney, the infamous former CEO of American Apparel, is going full throttle: His Los Angeles Apparel cotton face coverings can be found on mask-clad models in sexy poses (of course) on his company’s website and Instagram account.
The fashion industry’s sudden stampede to make face masks has garnered praise and enthusiastic headlines across the world. The New Yorker penned a glowing 1,200-word profile about “How Christian Siriano Turned His Fashion House Into a Mask Factory,” and Women’s Wear Daily trumpeted that the “Fashion Industry Comes Together to Fight Coronavirus Pandemic.” Fox News reported on how “Buck Mason Makes Masks for the Masses,” PopSugar touted that “Alice + Olivia Creates Masks Not Just for Those on the Front Lines but for the Public, Too,” and Bloomberg reported the heroic efforts of “Balenciaga, Saint Laurent to Produce Masks in French Workshops.”
Most fashion companies are in the business of nonessential stuff — frocks and handbags and chinos. But manufacturing face masks of all types are more likely to be viewed as essential businesses.
The free PR has been helpful, especially for the small, struggling brands that are facing near-apocalyptic conditions. “My main business is on hold,” says Rachelle Sloss, CEO of Youphoria Festivalwear, who sells her sterilized handmade masks online for $25 apiece. “In this challenging and uncertain time, you can make a positive impact with small actions like this one,” she wrote in an email to subscribers, adding that for each mask purchased, she’ll donate four masks to health care and frontline workers. “These face masks are made of two layers of cotton fabric and do not filter particles as effectively as an N95 mask,” she added (she bolded the words). “[But they] may filter up to 50% of COVID-19-sized particles. Your generous support is incredibly valuable.” So far, mask sales have covered this month’s rent, says Sloss, although she’s running low on materials.
Of course, nobody—not Sloss, not Prada, not Brooks Brothers—says they’re making masks to benefit from the positive media attention and brand goodwill. Sloss, in particular, says that the type of customers who are purchasing her masks are unlikely to ever convert to buying what she actually sells. It’s quite possible that many of these companies, feeling powerless, have pivoted all their resources to masks to help conquer a health crisis.
But what’s less examined is actually a very compelling business case.
Why selling masks makes sense
One big benefit of selling masks is that you get to keep operating and coming into work. When most states enacted their shelter-in-place orders — only eight states have held out — numerous so-called nonessential businesses closed, including retail stores, beauty salons, and the factories that manufacture these nonessential items.
Most fashion companies are in the business of nonessential stuff — frocks and handbags and chinos. But manufacturing face masks of all types are more likely to be viewed as essential businesses, and many of the brands and factories that produce them are getting granted “essential” status and having their application fast-tracked.
The apparel industry has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of people let go. Kohl’s furloughed 85,000 employees, Macy’s furloughed most of its 125,000 workers, and Gap furloughed close to 80,000 employees. Retailers were already struggling with poor sales and loads of debt before the crisis; for many of them, a coming recession will be the final straw. Department stores from Sears to Neiman Marcus are already slashing orders and closing stores entirely.
For some fashion companies, pivoting to making masks may be the only way they can possibly weather this crisis. It also puts them in line to win lucrative government contracts. Although President Donald Trump has been hesitant to use the Defense Production Act to force more companies to make masks, numerous city, state, and federal agencies clamoring for supplies, including the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Department of Defense, and the Bureau of Prisons, have posted requests for vendors online.
A life raft for the fashion world
On March 22, New York City asked companies to submit proposals to provide the city with PPE; the city received 460 queries in the first 24 hours and now averages 10 to 20 queries an hour, reported Women’s Wear Daily. New York City has made the contracts public — $6.6 million went to 10XBeta, a Brooklyn-based engineering studio, and $8 million to Digital Gadgets, a consumer tech manufacturer in New Jersey, for example.
On a federal level, many of the proposals are sealed (for now) but the Office of Preparedness and Response awarded Honeywell Safety Products $148.2 million, so it’s safe to say there’s a big pool of funds up for grabs. Last week, Hanesbrands, the parent company for Hanes, Champion, Playtex, and more, signed a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to produce cotton face masks designed for home use. The company is hoping to scale to 1.5 million masks a week.
The benefit of gaining these government contracts is that they cover costs, allowing these companies to have cash for rent during lockdowns, pay their employees, and keep their supply chains intact. San Francisco-based apparel company American Giant is one of the firms that landed an early contract. “A week ago, we decided to stop manufacturing apparel, and start making medical masks,” Bayard Winthrop, CEO of American Giant, told Marker in an interview published on March 25. “We’ve converted the plants entirely to medical mask production. The costs are being paid for by the government.”
“Making masks for medical workers is a far more complex process than sewing a piece of fashion.”
Winthrop’s factories are in North Carolina, which didn’t receive a shutdown order until March 30. “We’re trying to get essential manufacturing clearance so we can stay open,” he said before that date. “It’s nice to be able to keep people employed in the factories, but that wasn’t the motivation for making masks.”
Chris Olberding, president of Gitman Bros., a menswear line based in Ashland, Pennsylvania, is focused on retooling his factories to produce hospital gowns with full support from Gov. Tom Wolf. Olberding estimates that PPE production could become 25% to 40% of their business, he told the Wall Street Journal. “It doesn’t sound like this virus is going away,” he said.
The wrong kind of masks
Although many hospitals are still desperate for PPE, the masks these fashion companies are making are not medical-grade products. “Making masks for medical workers is a far more complex process than sewing a piece of fashion,” wrote May Yang, the founder of Lidia May, a leather purse line, in an editorial she published on Ecocult. Yang says she’s “deeply concerned” about the brands rushing to make medical masks, warning that cloth masks are not suitable for frontline workers and that some medical workers have been fired for wearing unauthorized PPE. “I understand the drive to give your PR person something positive to talk about,” she wrote. “But please, let’s stop making fabric masks as donations to medical facilities.” She suggested that brands focus on designing “kick-ass fabric masks” for consumers instead.
And, of course, many brands are jumping in on that, too. After the CDC recommendation on April 3 that all Americans wear cloth masks when venturing out of their homes, consumer demand for fabric masks has skyrocketed. On Tuesday, Etsy announced that over the weekend of April 4, shoppers had done more than 2 million searches for face masks on the site and that in the past week, the company had sold hundreds of thousands of handmade face masks per day.
Ironically, the one company that is not is going nuts with mask-making is Prestige Ameritech, a Texas company that actually manufactures the majority of U.S. hospital surgical masks. Its factories have ramped up production to 600,000 masks a day, but CEO Mike Bowen isn’t planning to further increase his volume; no night shifts, no weekend work, just regular 9-to-5 hours, reported the Dallas News. His reasoning: Everyone wants to buy his masks during an outbreak, but post-crisis, his customers will abandon him and order cheaper masks from China, where they can pay two cents a mask instead of a dime.
It’s happened before — during the H1N1 swine flu outbreak, Bowen increased production to supply hospitals but was not awarded any permanent contracts post-outbreak. He was forced to lay off 150 people. “I’m tired,” he said, “of being the backup guy.”