Fashion IN DEPTH
The making of PPE: From designers to the frontline Part 1
By Aileen Yu
Jun 18, 2020
Although the fashion and design industries have been hit hard by the devastating economic impact brought on by Covid-19, they have also been among the first ones to pull together the resources at hand to make immense contributions to the global relief effort. From LVMH producing hand sanitizer instead of perfume to Brooks Brothers making up to 150,000 surgical masks per day, designers and factories are doing everything they can during this critical time to give back to their communities.
The latest efforts see Elle tights brand manufacturing face masks and Burberry retool an iconic trench coat factory to produce medical gear. Chief Executive at Elle, Anja Khan, said in a statement, “It’s important that businesses do their bit to support all efforts to fight Covid-19. With such a huge demand for surgical masks for frontline health care professionals, we wanted to ease this strain and supply an ‘every day’ option as part of social distancing guidelines.”
How are designers and companies able to transition seemingly overnight to produce PPE at such an impactful scale? Recently, FashionUnited interviewed via Zoom and email two companies situated at the epicenters of the pandemic on what it took to design, create and distribute protective gear. The New York office of the renowned architecture and urban design firm, Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) has donated 5,000 plastic face shields to frontline health care workers all over the American East Coast. In the first of this two-part report, we talked exclusively to the iconic British heritage brand Mulberry on how their craftspeople have been sewing reusable gowns in its Somerset factories to support NHS frontline workers and have produced around 12,000 gowns to date.
What is your job title and what does your workday usually look like?
We are craftspeople at The Willows, one of Mulberry’s factories down in Somerset, where we make over 50 percent of all handbags. Normally, we are responsible for making bag families such as the Iris and our iconic Bayswater. We usually implement what is known as a lean production process - the ‘hand to hand’ method - which means each person is responsible for a dedicated step or component. This enables us to quality check items and each other’s work every step of the way as they move along the production line.
Are there any similarities in the skill sets that you already have which translate to what is needed to make PPE?
We are pleased to be making over 12,000 fluid-resistant, washable PPE gowns that can be safely used multiple times. We are also able to make up to 400 gowns a day – a lot more than the number of bags we can produce in the same time.
There are certainly fewer stages to making a PPE gown than one of our bags, but we are able to use the same stitching skills that some of us have been developing for nearly 20 years. We have adapted our machines to stitch material rather than leather and have adopted an end to end production format- this means one person is responsible for the production of each gown from start to finish, reducing how many people need to handle a gown.
How have the lockdown restrictions affected Mulberry’s craftspeople and how has everyone been working since returning to the factory?
Production of leather goods was postponed at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in line with government directives around non-essential work. Since returning, we have been following strict government guidelines, including having a reduced number of people on the factory floor. The majority of us live locally and are able to drive to work.
What has been some feedback on contributing socially during this time of crisis?
When some of us were informed that we would be returning to work to make PPE gowns, we were really proud to be involved and be able to play a role in supporting NHS frontline workers. Some of us also have family working in the NHS, so it’s been very rewarding to return to work and know we are doing our bit to help. We hope the rainbow colours we’re producing the gowns in has put a smile on people’s faces at a difficult time.
Also, we think it’s great that Mulberry was able to turn around the manufacturing of PPE gowns so quickly. It took less than a week from us receiving a request from a local consultant at a Critical Care ward to making a prototype and starting production on the gowns. The response we’ve had has been really positive, and we are now able to fulfil requests for gowns from individuals and other NHS trusts.
Do you think the fashion and design industry has the power to influence social or positive change post the Covid-19 crisis?
Yes, absolutely. It’s been wonderful to see both global brands and small designer businesses join the fight against Covid-19. Mulberry shared its PPE gown patterns with other NHS trusts and businesses so that more people could get involved.
We have also been raising funds for the National Emergencies Trust with our Coronavirus Appeal. Thanks to the generosity of our community, we have raised over 75,000 pounds to help out those most affected by the pandemic.
Read part 2 of this series with Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) by clicking here >>
Images: courtesy of Mulberry