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The U.S. apparel industry wants to step up.

Domestic manufacturers coast-to-coast — from Hickey Freeman’s tailored suit shop in Rochester, N.Y., to Dov Charney’s Los Angeles Apparel T-shirt factory in South Central L.A. — are firing up production to help fix the supply shortage of face masks and hospital gowns as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of factory operators, pattern-cutters and seamstresses have gone back to work, under social distancing guidelines, to make N95 masks, nonmedical masks and other personal protective equipment for essential workers and everyday citizens who are now being encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control to wear face coverings in public to help stop the spread of the virus. “I’m choosing not to do it,” President Donald Trump said Friday. “It’s only a recommendation.”

Nevertheless, Hanesbrands, Jockey, Fruit of the Loom, New Balance, L.L. Bean, Carhartt, Brooks Brothers, Hart Schaffner Marx, Tailored Brands, Reformation, Vera Bradley, Fanatics and Under Armour are just a few of the American corporations already pivoting part of their production to the cause. That is on top of myriad smaller initiatives from designers and brands, some of which are sewing supplies at home or donating funds and equipment through the American Hospital Association’s “100 Million Mask Challenge,” Goggles for Docs, and other movements. Similar initiatives in China and Europe are also receiving financial and equipment support from companies in the fashion and beauty industries.

The U.S. industry mobilization harks back to World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt pursued sweeping powers to requisition supplies and property and force industries to produce wartime products. American manufacturing output grew 300 percent in that time. Some of the same heritage brands now making PPE (including Hart Schaffner Marx and Brooks Brothers) shifted to military production then, mostly making uniforms, or in Hanes-owned Maidenform’s case, tiny vests for carrier pigeons.

A Maidenform World War II-era carrier pigeon vest.  Courtesy of Hanesbrands

But this fight is different. Unlike Roosevelt’s big government approach, which was coordinated by Sears Roebuck executive vice president Donald Nelson, the supply-side war against COVID-19 has been less organized so far, and faces different challenges due to today’s extreme globalization, as well as the restriction of the number of employees who can be safely assigned to the effort during the pandemic.

“Wartime relies more heavily on the government and we’ve seen a reluctance from President Trump, who very much likes his authority but has hesitated to use his authority,” said historian Meg Jacobs, whose work at Princeton University focuses on American economic history.

Trump has used the Defense Protection Act to compel General Motors and Ford to produce respirators, but has largely relied on state and local officials and private enterprise for PPE supply solutions, which are coming together from the ground up, despite a lack of leadership — and many regulatory, materials and logistics hurdles.

In addition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the regulation of N95 masks is handled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has left some manufacturers with the better option of making nonsurgical, personal protective masks.

“I ask businesses just to think about the situation we’re in and a possible opportunity. It is the cruelest irony that this nation is now dependent on China for production of many of these products,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a press conference last Thursday, when he once again urged local garment manufacturers to help. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a similar call to his city’s manufacturing community, launching a program dubbed L.A. Protects to try to coordinate efforts in the largest garment manufacturing center in the U.S., with more than 45,000 workers, to produce five million masks.

Only a portion of production is being funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and all the corporations and brands that have managed to start to make PPE equipment say they are doing so at a loss, though it is enabling them to keep some workers on the payroll.

Net domestic manufacturing jobs in the U.S. apparel industry were already in decline before the crisis, despite efforts by the Trump administration over the last few years to rebuild American production. Big picture: could this supply emergency highlight an opportunity for American manufacturing in the long term?

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“I’m confident there will be support for building domestic supply chains as a risk-aversion measure into the future,” said Annelies Goger of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, with the caveat that jobs created would probably more likely be applied STEM jobs.

“If there’s any vindication of the president’s Buy American, secure borders, strong manufacturing base philosophy, strategy and belief it is this crisis,” President Trump’s Defense Production Act policy organizer Peter Navarro said Thursday at the White House COVID-19 response team press conference, adding a political pitch.

One coalition of businesses with production being funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was organized at Navarro’s behest by Parkdale Inc., the largest yarn spinner in the U.S., headquartered in North Carolina. Launched March 21, it brought together Hanesbrands, Fruit of the Loom, American Giant, AST Sportswear, Sanmar, America Knits, Beverly Knits, Riegel Linen and Los Angeles Apparel with the goal of producing more than 10 million masks a week in U.S. and Central American factories.

“We are proud to be a part of it,” said Bayard Winthrop, chief executive officer and founder of the 10-year-old, San Francisco-based American Giant brand, which exclusively produces its sportswear in the U.S. “We converted our facilities in North Carolina to HHS and FDA approved medical mask production, and we are in the process of getting more equipment. This work requires very specific machines, and we only had 12, so we are scaling up and we expect in another week or two to be making 50,000 masks a day.”

Although he’s happy his 50 workers can help, he added, “It’s insane that we are at the point where a company like mine making T-shirts and sweatshirts is having to convert to PPE, and it speaks to what we have let go from a manufacturing standpoint and what we need to fix. I think this is a big issue, a bipartisan issue.”

Dov Charney founded Los Angeles Apparel in 2016, a vertically-integrated brand follow-up to his previous venture, American Apparel.

Dov Charney founded Los Angeles Apparel in 2016, a vertically-integrated brand follow-up to his previous venture, American Apparel.  Michael Buckner/WWD

In his Los Angeles Apparel T-shirt facility, Charney — a controversial figure when he was at American Apparel in the pre-#MeToo era but always an advocate for Made in the U.S.A. — has about 300 workers producing nonmedical masks, with an output of more than 100,000 already. He’s selling them to the government, to hospitals and private companies, and donating others.

“We had a client place an order for 25,000 the other day,” Charney said, noting that he’s also been fielding calls from individual health professionals, and even sent a shipment by Uber to San Diego. “It’s important to me as a manufacturer to say we’re making these under emergency circumstances. But at this point, all Americans should be wearing masks. It’s silly to be in public without a face barrier.”

Heritage Brands Offer Help

Other American brands have taken the initiative to make PPE themselves. “Over two weeks ago, we reached out directly to the White House as well as to several state governors and other local officials to see what we could do to help. Simultaneously, we had our product development team start working on prototypes, researching and sourcing materials and planning all the logistics,” said Claudio Del Vecchio, chairman and ceo of Brooks Brothers.

Brooks Brothers began creating uniforms for veterans of the War of 1812, and by 1846, was outfitting soldiers fighting in the Mexican-American War. From that point on, the brand made combat uniforms through World War II. It also made uniforms for the New York regiments during the Civil War. So it’s not surprising that the 202-year-old company was also among the first to reopen its U.S. factories to help in the fight against COVID-19.

Plants in New York City, Massachusetts and North Carolina that make shirts, ties and suits have been converted to produce up to 150,000 masks on an ongoing basis, and eventually will make gowns. Some 500 of its 800-person factory workforce was rehired to work on the protective equipment.

“We consider this a duty, and part of our DNA at Brooks Brothers,” said Del Vecchio. “These are challenging times that are impacting us all. We are deeply grateful to the medical personnel at the front lines who are fighting the pandemic, and we are honored to do our part and join our peers in retail to provide protective masks that our health-care system critically needs. I also want to thank our dedicated manufacturing employees who are returning to work as we reopen our factories to make this possible.”

He said the company got in contact immediately with the FDA “to inquire about the requirements to produce the masks and to ask for their help in expediting the certification process. We also connected with Stop the Spread, which has been a great partner to us and to other companies who want to help. Stop the Spread also has clinical experts and consultants available to partner companies like us. We started making cloth masks and are also making surgical masks as the materials come in.”

Brooks Brothers has worked to get its factory staff up to speed quickly to learn how to make the masks, he added. “There are many complexities involved in completely transitioning a factory that makes one type of thing to suddenly make something else. From an operational standpoint, what would normally take several months we are doing in just days.”

Del Vecchio said the company will continue to produce the protective equipment for as long as it takes. “There are so few apparel manufacturers in America and we feel strongly that it is our responsibility to help however we can with the resources we have.”

Stephen Granovsky, ceo of Hickey Freeman Tailored Clothing, made the decision March 23 to convert the company’s previously closed factory in Rochester into a facility to produce protective face masks for the medical staff at Rochester General Hospital. He said the hospital had approached him about making masks and shipped him 33 boxes of surgical drapes to use as material.

Rochester General Hospital approached Hickey Freeman about the making masks and shipped 33 boxes of surgical drapes to use as material to the factory to supply the effort.

Rochester General Hospital approached Hickey Freeman about the making masks.  Matt Wittmeyer/WWD

The masks are not N95 grade and have not received the approval of the FDA, but they are the “highest safety level” possible below that. Ten thousand masks have been delivered so far and he is hoping to significantly ramp up to 300,000. “The biggest impediment,” he said, has been the supply side since the materials needed to produce the masks are hard to find — and out of the company’s historic wheelhouse. But he continues to plug away.

While converting the factory, in operation since 1912, was not hard — making protective gear also requires cutting and sewing machines — the masks are not sterile when they leave the facility. Although Rochester General has the equipment necessary to sterilize the masks, other recipients such as police departments, do not. Hickey is also hoping to find a way to overcome that hurdle.

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Granovsky has been able to rehire around 100 of the factory’s 300 or so workers and hopes to add another 100 in the near future. And while he is losing money, “it’s been great for the brand and the company as a whole,” both in terms of lifting morale of the employees as well as impressing customers. So much so, he is expecting to turn the shuttered Samuelsohn plant in Montreal into a mask-making facility. (Samuelsohn is another tailored clothing division of the corporation.)

In Freeport, Maine, employees who typically stitch and sew L.L. Bean boots and totes are now producing masks out of material used to make the brand’s dog bed liners. The factory is making nearly 10,000 masks per day for distribution, primarily to local healthcare organizations, and testing materials for medical gowns and booties.

Vera Bradley ramped up production in its Fort Wayne, Ind.-based facility to produce cotton masks that retail for $8, which quickly sold out on its site. The initial plan is to produce about 15,000 each week and increase runs from there, chief executive officer Robert Wallstrom said. ”What we’re good at as a country is how to solve problems. Government has a role to play and they do a lot. But the ingenuity of individuals on the side can add to it. I don’t think it’s an either or but how do we do both?”

Sportswear in the Game

Sportswear brands are also pitching in. Under Armour is using its Lighthouse innovation lab in Baltimore, Md. to produce more than 500,000 face masks, 1,000 face shields and thousands of hospital gowns for the University of Maryland Medical System and tens of thousands more for other local medical facilities.

Under Armour made the decision to get involved after medical providers reached out. “We made it our top priority to mobilize and get these items to them as quickly as possible,” said Randy Harward, senior vice president of advanced material and manufacturing innovation for the activewear brand. “So more than 50 Under Armour teammates — from materials scientists to footwear and apparel designers, based in laboratories in Baltimore and Portland — swiftly came together to brainstorm a mask design.”

He said the company is making no profits from the work, but it “has given us a unique opportunity to come together as a team — even when we can’t physically be together — to offer quick, innovative thinking in a critical and unprecedented time.”

Fanatics, the largest manufacturer and online retailer of licensed sports apparel, converted its 360,000-square-foot factory in Easton, Pa., from the production of official Major League Baseball jerseys to single-use general purpose non-surgical masks and gowns. The factory became part of the Fanatics family when it purchased Majestic from VF Corp. in 2017. The initiative got a lot of publicity when it was announced last week because the factory is using the pin-striped jersey fabrics that would have been made into New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies uniforms for the protective equipment.

The Pennsylvania factory is making around 15,000 pieces a day and the goal is to make one million items, at which point the demand will be reassessed, the company said. Some 100 workers at the plant were rehired to create the masks and gowns, about one quarter of what the factory would have employed creating jerseys.

Fanatics and MLB are splitting the cost of the initiative — which is estimated at around $3 million for the labor and materials. The first of the gear has already been distributed to health-care workers in Pennsylvania and the program will be expanded to New York and New Jersey. Eventually, the plan is to also include other teams and jersey fabrics into the program.

The idea was hatched by Michael Rubin, executive chairman of Fanatics, who said: “The COVID-19 crisis has compelled our country to be more collaborative, innovative and strategic than ever before.”

New Balance associate using and fabricating face masks at the company’s Lawrence, MA factory.

New Balance associate using and fabricating face masks at the company’s Lawrence, MA factory.  Courtesy Photo

New Balance is scaling up production of general-use face masks for PPE workers at Massachusetts General Hospital and other Boston hospitals. The company consulted with authorities at Mass General and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop the prototype, which was put into production in a matter of days. About 150 workers are producing the masks in factories in Lawrence, Mass., and Norridgewock, Maine — two of five factories that New Balance owns in the U.S.

Although New Balance has a network of 250 factories globally for apparel and footwear production, its domestic factories are “the jewels of the company,“ said David Wheeler, executive vice president of global supply chain.

As for what impact such national relief efforts may have on domestic manufacturing, he said, “It’s a tough call. We’re obviously just taking this one day at a time. There’s a renewed appreciation for American innovation and our collective ability to pivot at a time of crisis. That’s awesome. We haven’t seen that in a generation where we needed to repurpose our factories. You can see that across the board in all industries whether it’s for respirators or anything that is needed by the health-care industry now.”

“Also, there is a recognition that short lead times can be a real advantage to domestic manufacturing. Quick turnaround of hours and days versus weeks and months delivers significant value in terms of product availability on the shelves and inventory levels — key elements of the consumer needs,” added Wheeler. “Both of those could result in some incremental investment in American manufacturing.”

Also in Massachusetts, Merrow, a 180-year-old in Fall River-based technical apparel and gear manufacturer is coming to market with surgical gowns, surgical caps and an antiviral reusable sanitary mask (not for the hospital workers but for people), said Charlie Merrow. “The consumption we have seen for disposable products in this process has been astonishing. There really is an environmental story that is going to surface, as we understand more clearly what the supply chain has been providing the health-care industry and as we move forward,” he noted.

Shipping product daily, the eighth-generation privately held business now has 60 people working in operations and “hundreds and hundreds of people sewing” in its 260,000-square-foot anchor facility. Acknowledging that a lot of time each day is now spent in safety and health meetings, Merrow said a department was created for facility safety to keep everyone healthy.

He is aiming to manufacture 50,000 to 100,000 gowns, about 25,000 surgical caps and up to 75,000 masks a week. Six weeks ago the company first sought various types of FDA approval and it is still in the process. Merrow entered into a joint venture with Montana-based hunting gear maker Forloh to combine design, development, financial and lobbying resources. “One big part of this has been to make sure we were building the best product and the most sustainable product we could, which was one-part supply chain, another part design and a third-part – an FDA-qualified and certified product,” Merrow said.

At the outset, the product was designed to pass level one and level two certification with the FDA, “which for the moment has waived the requirement for its certification for a product to be in market as long as it passes some other criteria, that we pass well,” Merrow said. There is also a facility application and Merrow aims to come out of the FDA process with level three or four certification for its facility to be able to produce the highest and most complex sterile products.

”If we didn’t have a great legal team and a consulting group working to support us I certainly wouldn’t have any confidence that we would be able to navigate it on our own,” Merrow said. “I feel like I haven’t slept in three weeks.”

More Coordination Needed

Across the board, manufacturers shared the need for more resources to navigate the process of producing and distributing the goods. Even in New York, where the PPE shortage is perhaps most urgent, it hasn’t been easy for those who want to get involved to do so.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America provided the appropriate state or city contacts to nearly 300 designers and manufacturers that showed interest in helping with the relief efforts. At this point, an estimated 25 percent of those parties are actually making products, according to program manager Cal McNeil, who focused on ensuring those contacts were available. “That’s one of the reasons why we have been frustrated over the past few weeks because we sent so much of the industry to Governor Cuomo’s office. Then not many people heard back in the end, which is probably why the number is very low on how many people are actually doing something right now.”

From McNeil’s understanding, there has been a better response rate with New York City’s Economic Development Corporation, which the CFDA works closely with. “To no one’s discredit,” the response rate inevitably may have been affected by the flood of queries from well-intentioned manufacturers and designers and the lack of manpower to respond to all of them. “Overnight the entire industry was trying to mobilize to help, which was really incredible to see. I think it just kind of broke down the system to a point. It seemed like they couldn’t handle the responses that were coming in,” McNeil said.

One company that was able to forge a partnership with Cuomo’s office is data-engineered clothing manufacturer Laws of Motion. Using its U.S. factories, the company has committed to making 250,000 gowns weekly using medical-grade non-woven polypropylene for stand-alone and temporary hospitals. Laws of Motion is also in talks with other health and local officials in other states.

The NYCEDC is working with several companies to develop prototypes for gowns for health-care workers. The criteria to be in the running required the capacity to make between 2,000 and 5,000 pieces a day, according to Sonia Park, vice president of industry innovation at the NYCEDC.

Workers from Bednark Studio and Duggal Visual Solutions are part of a group effort making face shields in The Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Workers from Bednark Studio and Duggal Visual Solutions are part of a group effort making face shields in The Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Lexie Moreland/WWD

Her team is also working closely with the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where different relief efforts are under way. Workers from Bednark Studio and Duggal Visual Solutions are part of a group effort to produce face shields, creating 127,000 to date. Other contributors are at work at MakerSpace NYC and Adafruit.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, domestic manufacturing has been a resource for the New York fashion ecosystem. Referring to apparel and garment manufacturers in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, Park noted they can provide such services as speed-to-market, customization and on-demand manufacturing. As for what’s ahead, she said, “With everything that is happening in fashion and at retail [at this time], it’s hard to say how that will impact everything and trickle to manufacturing.“

In California, coordination has also been a hurdle. L.A. Mayor Garcetti partnered with sustainable clothing brand Reformation to try to organize his L.A. Protect program to mobilize the area’s manufacturing force, but approvals have been difficult, and many of Southern California’s factories are actually located outside the City of L.A.. Late Friday, Chrome Hearts announced it had received approvals to start using its Hollywood factories to produce PPE.

The Los Angeles Apparel facility has produced more than 100,000 non-medical masks.

The Los Angeles Apparel facility has produced more than 100,000 non-medical masks.  Michael Buckner/WWD

“At the state level, there are layers of agencies with ‘asks’ out there, and they have the ability to purchase. However, there are very strict non-negotiable guidelines for payment and distribution which are not in concert with general commercial agreements,” said Ilse Metchek, president of trade group The California Fashion Association. “Additionally, the hospitals and medical facilities that are not on the state’s roster of recipients cannot access these supplies. The city, on the other hand, cannot purchase anything; they can only direct traffic. That leaves all the rest of the facilities searching, independently, for the suppliers and these facilities do not all have the same specifications.

“Our manufacturing companies are doing all they can by converting fashion industry based machinery, textiles and finishes. No one was ready for this,” Metchek added, before hitting on the one overriding positive sentiment: “The effort and ‘can do’ attitude is widespread and gratifying.”

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