Coronavirus Crisis: How to Help Those In Need

Companies eager to pitch in with production of PPE goods now have an online resource to help put their plans in motion.

Fashion for the Front Lines, a new task force that is focused on sourcing personal protective equipment for health-care workers, has launched a site to help companies navigate production and find resources.

As the group’s site indicates, the mission is “to create simplicity, centralization and standardization to support the U.S. response to the severe lack of PPE goods during the COVID-19 crisis.” However, none of the 20 members of the task force wanted to be identified in order to keep the focus on the group’s mission, according to two FFF leaders. “We’re really focused on how do we get gowns to people quickly. Period,” said one of them during a joint interview Wednesday.

That leader explained, “The important message is Fashion for the Front Lines is not creating anything other than acting as a clearinghouse for information, and for supply and demand. At the highest level we’re working with some of the biggest manufacturers on the planet. We’re having great success with them. But we’re also trying to fire up relatively more cottage [size] or artisanal elements to try to get people who want to produce and don’t have a tech pack, for example.”

He continued, “So we’re trying to either deliver the order or the tech pack. When I say deliver, I mean the intellectual property to the right source. It’s like quarterbacking or a hub and spoke effect. If one spoke is a company that can manufacture, but it doesn’t have the textile, they’re coming to us to say, ‘Where can I find the textile?’ and vice versa.”

With the coordination of FFF, production for PPE gowns started about three weeks ago through various entities. To date, 1.8 million medical gowns are in production and are on their way to medical workers. The bulk of those garments is bound for New York health-care facilities. One of the FFF leaders emphasized, “The aim is to do a helluva lot more, right? As a country, we’re going to need orders of magnitude much more than we have talked about. It’s a gratifying start, because we got something started. But sadly we’re going to need a lot more than that.”

Citing a letter from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, one FFF task force member noted that New York City alone needs 1.2 million medical gowns for the next five days. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has referenced in his daily briefings that 20 million gowns are needed, although the current stockpile is 15,000.

Well aware that other PPE medical supplies could be addressed by FFF, the group has narrowed its focus to address the shortage of gowns. “That’s really become a real problem. There are lots of other problems, but one problem at a time,” one of the FFF members said.

As for why making PPE goods has been so logistically challenging for many people, the member said, “One needs to focus on what’s possible versus what’s been impossible. The global supply chain is a global supply chain, particularly when it comes to this kind of material.”

Other factors include global demand; U.S.-China trade matters; FDA requirements, and limited textile and/or garment manufacturing in the U.S. Fifty percent of all such products are produced or imported into this country from China. The FFF leader said, “The supply coming from China in particular is finding demand that is not the United States. They can send it to Europe, to South America, to India or pick a country that needs it. Our regulations, albeit very necessary in peace time, is harder to deal with in war time. We just need product and it’s finding a different home that is not the United States.”

Many designers and manufacturers — colossal and minuscule — have voiced interest in pitching in with the relief efforts. Some like Brooks Brothers, Nike and New Balance have forged their own paths, and others have been delayed by bureaucratic red tape. FFF aims to cut through all those questions by providing necessary information about medical gown material requirements, fabric sources, tech packs and manufacturing resources producing PPE. The FashionForTheFrontlines site also has an open-sourced resource guide to help companies mobilize to produce PPE goods.

After hearing one of Cuomo’s briefings a few weeks ago, FFF’s two leaders agreed that the fashion community had to take action. Before COVID-19 immobilized much of the world, a task force had been established thanks in part to New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who was eager to bolster New York City’s garment industry and help give it more of a technology edge. After the task force’s plans for a March 28 brainstorming session at The New School’s Parsons School of Design was postponed more than once, the decision was made to pivot to figure out what the industry needed to help with relief efforts, and manufacturing PPE gowns quickly became the focus.

Some key suppliers listed on FFF’s site include Swatch On, Global Brands, Li & Fung, Gerber Technology and Care + Wear. Several years ago Care + Wear and Parsons students first researched and envisioned a new medical gown with more adequate coverage for the wearer. That was done in conjunction with patients, fashion designers, medical professionals, hospital leaders and laundering experts.

FFF is coordinating with New York City’s Economic Development Corp. and domestic manufacturers, knowing each country will need additional PPE products if the coronavirus flares up again. The group also wanted to create jobs in the shutdown. New York was and still is FFF’s focus, but other areas of the country are also being serviced. It is not currently known how many workers have returned to work for the FFF-coordinated efforts.

FFF’s decision to stay anonymous is pretty simple: ”There’s a lot of profiteering going on right now. We’re finding it to be quite sad. We’re banging our heads against the wall with people trying to mark things up. One of our partners is spending half his time trying to sift through what is real and what is not,” a FFF leader explained.

Praise is not what the group is after. “This is part of our duty. This is what we want to be doing,” the leader said.

His fellow supporter added, “We don’t want it to be about us. We want it to be about the mission. We’re so busy that we don’t want any distractions from millions of calls and millions of people, who aren’t interested in the same mission. A lot of people — you can’t blame them — want to do publicity. We just want to make sure it focuses on the need and the supply and the demand. We feel that will help the medical workers and the businesses that are participating.”

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