Fashion IN DEPTH
The making of PPE: From designers to the frontline Part 2
By Aileen Yu
Jun 18, 2020
How are designers and companies able to transition seemingly overnight to produce PPE at such an impactful scale? 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. 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.
Most recently, Elle tights brand manufactured face masks and Burberry retooled 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.”
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. British heritage brand Mulberry has been sewing reusable PPE gowns in its Somerset factories to support NHS frontline workers and has produced around 12,000 gowns. In the second of this two-part report, we spoke to the New York office of the internationally renowned architecture, interiors and urban design firm, Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM). Since the beginning of April, SOM has donated 5,000 plastic face shields to frontline health care workers and care homes all over the American East Coast.
Are there any similarities in the skill sets that designers and architects already possess to those which were used to produce the plastic face shields?
Koop: Architects all have mini fabrication spaces in their offices because we rely on scale models, full-scale mock-ups, and a lot of other devices to study our design ideas. In the last 10 years, architecture studios have transformed those fabrication spaces with 3D printing, laser cutting, and prototyping. The maker mentality has sort of infused itself into the architecture and design profession.
This pandemic turned out to be a catalyst for designers and architects to think differently about what we were using this very sophisticated equipment for. There were a lot of people in our profession prototyping protective gear, and face shields. There were even examples of designers trying to 3D print ventilator valves.
This crisis has proven to be a time where people try to learn from each other and crowdsource the best possible designs. It’s been an eye-opener to see when you have so many minds spread around the globe each doing their own version, design can quickly evolve from a 1.0 to a 3.0 version.
This pandemic turned out to be a catalyst for designers and architects to think differently. It’s proven to be a time where people try to learn from each other and crowdsource the best possible designs.
Can you explain the process that went into designing and making the PPE?
Koop: We had a strange reality which is that we were supposed to be moving to a new office in April. We had packed up our model shop entirely and put it into storage, so when this shelter in place reality occurred, we were left without the machinery we needed to produce PPE. We ended up working directly with a company called Arc Printing to prototype our designs through them and then compensating them for the production.
Harris: We reached out to people that have partnered with us in the past, especially those involved in printing and model making. We eventually decided on Arc who are located right outside of New York City. They appealed to us because of the material they had, laser cutting technology and the ability to distribute large numbers very quickly- at peak, they were producing 300 face shields a day for us. After a lot of research and discussion, we settled on an all-plastic design that we thought would have the most impact. The design was very straightforward, it was easily cleanable and therefore reusable, and it was also easy to pack and ship. These were all the factors that were most important to us.
Did you face any challenges once the plastic face shields were produced?
Harris: The biggest challenge for us was how to leverage our different networks to distribute the plastic face shields and get them into the hands of the right people. We put out a call to our staff to any hospitals they knew in the community, where family members worked, or even the hospital that cared for one of our colleagues who had the virus. We even looked online and at community boards, made calls and ended up donating the protective gear to care homes as well.
The biggest challenge for us was how to leverage our different networks to distribute the plastic face shields. We put out a call to our staff to any hospitals they knew in the community and where family members worked.
What has been some of the feedback from designers and architects involved with the relief effort during this time of crisis?
Koop: It’s been an incredibly positive and a galvanizing experience for all of us. In particular, so many SOM employees have loved ones who are healthcare workers and who might be first responders. This gave them an opportunity to protect those people while doing their work as designers.
In a time when everyone is working remotely in a completely virtual environment, this sort of communal activity of giving back allows people to stay connected to their colleagues and the communities.
For the architecture and design industry, do you foresee any permanent shifts in values or ways of working once the economy reopens?
Koop: One thing that is very clear to me is that for a long time, health care environments and health care products have not been prioritized by many designers and architects. These are, just across the board, one of the typologies that have been overlooked. One of the values that we hope will come out of this is a lot more emphasis and broad-based interest in design and architecture around health-care products and environments. People deserve to be around well-designed objects and environments – especially when they are sick and going through that difficulty. Then, we may see those effects push out into other industries and become knowledge that’ll be applied to all different types of projects, including workplaces, schools, and airports.
I think that’s a huge benefit for humanity to have the best designers and thinkers in the world focusing on that part of the human experience which has been for too long left just to experts.
Read part 1 of this series with Mulberry by clicking here >>
Images: courtesy of Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM), Second image (left) credited to Lucas Blair Simpson