Designer Chris Gelinas is swapping designer collections for personal protective equipment, or PPE, a nascent product category that’s exploding amid the coronavirus pandemic.
KleenWraps, a Philadelphia-based maker of antimicrobial grips founded in 2014 by self-described germaphobes Russell Silver-Fagan and his mother Elizabeth Silver, recently tapped Gelinas to develop a wider range of accessories — and heighten their aesthetic appeal and sustainability credentials.
Gelinas, who had just wrapped a consulting stint at Marc Jacobs and made his CG label made-to-order only, admits his prospects in, and motivation for, high-end fashion dimmed as the pandemic unleashed staggering human loss and widespread economic damage.
So when Silver-Fagan, a fashion lawyer he knew, called him for advice on taking KleenWraps to the next level, Gelinas saw an “amazing opportunity to shift from aspirational design to essential design and feel a sense of purpose.
“Using my experience to design and develop items that I believe will be integral to ensuring our safety and well-being as we re-integrate into social life has really helped me navigate this very uncertain moment,” the designer said.
Initially developed for gym devotees grossed out by sweat-soaked surfaces and equipment, KleenWraps has seen “exponential” growth in recent months as people sought ways to avoid touching shopping-cart handles, subway poles, bicycle handlebars and the like.
“Most people haven’t thought beyond the glove when it comes to hand coverings,” said Silver-Fagan. “We think that the category has a lot of room for growth.”
Enter Gelinas, who sees no reason why PPE should be divorced from good design and fashionability.
“I have never felt that aesthetics and design are reserved for luxury or fine art,” he said. “Any and all things we create should be done so with an eye for refined details. Protective, essential accessories are no different.”
While admitting form does follow function with PPE, “there is still an opportunity for expression and design and I think in the right moment fashion can and should embrace it,” Gelinas argued. “I like to think of that point in history when eyewear went from protective necessity to sartorial statement, I think in time when the circumstances are less critical in need there will be an appropriate place for fashion in this category.”
Gelinas, who lives in Manhattan and uses bike-sharing, says he never leaves home without his KleenWraps.
“I primarily use them at the grocery store, but I can’t imagine commuting on a train or being in a gym without them in the future,” he said, noting that among recent enhancements are double-layer bonded silicone dots for comfort and grip.
“I have also always been very focused on ergonomics and functionality, even when designing eveningwear, so exploring this category has opened up a whole new realm of problems to solve and questions to ask,” Gelinas said. “It’s all in the little details and as many are rushing to enter this market they’re overlooking the little things that make something worthwhile.”
Among new products in development is a mask KleenWraps hopes to launch in July, along with other “essential” accessories for commuters, fitness enthusiasts and even pet owners.
Gelinas and Silver-Fagan are also aiming to ensure minimal environmental impact in the manufacturing of its PPE along with washability, durability and affordability.
Born in Canada, Gelinas graduated with a design degree from Parsons School of Design. His experience includes design roles at Marc Jacobs, Proenza Schouler, Balenciaga and lifestyle brand Becken. He was a finalist in the first LVMH Young Fashion Designers prize and his first CG collection won the MADE for Peroni Young Designer Award in 2013.
While the health crisis halted an “exciting, long-term project” in fashion, the designer said he remains optimistic about fashion’s future, despite all the challenges the crisis has heaped upon it.
“I have seen a lot of great conversations start and re-start throughout this time and it makes me very hopeful for our industry, even in a moment when it’s future it so unclear,” he said. “I think what we need is a renewed sense of collaboration and community.”