A Sartorial Call to Action

Before becoming a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, my past life consisted of late New York nights, fashion, and epicurean adventures. With other vicenarians in the early aughts, we flocked to New York City seeking a life inspired by the musings of Carrie Bradshaw and Bungalow 8 It-Girls. Before the onset of Covid-19, my past stiletto-clad fashion life never intersected with my current life as a healthcare provider. I soberly left fashion in 2012, happily trading red bottoms for white clogs and rarely looking back, except to ogle (with a bit of nostalgia and a tinge of jealously) the new legions of mondaines as they, undeniably dressed to kill, descended upon the city twice yearly during fashion week.

When the news of the mysterious coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China first traveled to America, the initial response at my hospital – which would eventually become the healthcare facility at the epicenter of the epicenter – was quiet. As the virus began its global migration and the first infected patient in New York City was admitted to my hospital, my immediate instinct was to protect my patients – all of them pregnant, most of them young and from marginalized communities. Gradually, the mask supply at my hospital dwindled and the N95 became as elusive as a Himalaya Birkin.

After weeks of futile web searches for a handful of N95s to adequately protect my patients, an unexpected fusion of my diametric past and present lives – fashion would do what the government would not. Overnight, I received a deluge of messages from fashion friends responding to my Instagram posts requesting resources for myself and fellow providers, some of whom had already fallen ill. Within days, donations began to arrive, and I was quickly able to fulfill requests from colleagues and other hospitals facing PPE shortages.

Merin Guthrie, founder of Kitmade – a Houston, Texas-based atelier and recent recipient of the Hello Alice Covid-19 grant for small businesses – was one of the first to respond. Kitmade is a bespoke women’s apparel company that transformed its business to provide PPE to essential workers, healthcare organizations, and customers seeking to protect themselves. As the PPE supply chain began to kink with the onset of COVID-19, a pediatric transplant unit reached out to Kitmade.

Merin bears witness to the fashion fallout which ensued. “The global supply chain around soft goods fell apart,” he said. “We saw the wheels completely fall off [suppliers] of textiles, of trim, of fabric… there is a thread shortage; part of the reason why we still have thread is because one of my friends from college is the general counsel for the largest thread company in the world.” In keeping with the charge of the fashion community to stay ahead of the curve, Kitmade, like countless other brands, was compelled to pivot.

Much like Kitmade, the New York City-based brand Off-Label, headed by Aya Agul, a modelesque emergency-room nurse, traded in custom gown design for mask production when she found herself in need of more than the single mask she was granted per shift. In addition to caring for those most disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in New York City, Aya still felt compelled to respond to the shortage of PPE she and her colleagues were facing. Re-purposing recycled textiles, Aya partnered with an NYC-based factory to produce masks made of scuba material, the proceeds of which she uses to directly purchase other PPE needed by her fellow colleagues at the hospital, an initiative she coined “Mask for Mask”.

This call to action has echoed across the fashion world with independent designers Phoebe English, Christian Siriano, Dejin, AKings, Marine Serre, and Selective Ha, among countless others who have halted their apparel production to fulfil the critical need for protection. Fashion on the Front Lines, a group of 20 anonymous designers who describe their mission as being “to create simplicity, centralization, and standardization to support the U.S. response to the severe lack of PPE goods during the COVID-19 crisis.” The group has leveraged their personal manufacturing expertise and connections to form a direct supply chain of PPE to healthcare facilities and workers.

Many designers have taken this approach beyond the cottage industry model of in-house mask manufacturing to offer economic support to fellow designers in jeopardy of losing their business due to the pandemic. Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond is one such designer – after witnessing firsthand how his own sister, a medical provider in New York, was exposed to COVID-19 due to a lack of PPE, he was inspired to convert his New York City office to a donation center, providing essential PPE, including N95 masks, to healthcare workers. Jean-Raymond’s continued aim to utilize the brand as a platform for social discourse and creative activism catalyzed the brand’s establishment of a $50,000 fund to support minority- and women-owned creative businesses facing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic.

Joining independent labels in the call to action, luxury labels have also stepped forward to add support to their workers and other essential personnel. Luxury conglomerate LVMH contributed more than $2.3million towards COVID-19 relief efforts. In addition to financial relief, the company utilized its fragrance manufacturing facilities to produce over 12 tons of hand sanitizer to be donated to the largest healthcare facility in Europe.

Fashion has long held a legacy of resiliency during times of crisis, a tradition that is continued in this Covid-19 era. During World War II, fashion relied on women who bravely entered into the workforce to produce essential military apparel and other goods. When the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s directly claimed the lives of many fashion icons, the industry did not wait for government approval or support to act. It responded by establishing funds to support research, medication development, and distribution. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), in response to the effect of 9/11 on the fashion retail space, began a fund to support struggling designers, a fund which is currently providing support to independent designers in danger of losing their business as a result of COVID-19.

Looking ahead, the industry has begun to focus on devising strategies to resuscitate and reimagine fashion in order to ensure its viability. Councils consisting of industry executives, designers, and retailers, such as that created by media outlet Business of Fashion, are planning an approach to revitalize the industry following Covid-19’s impact. Whichever approach is chosen, it will require the swift ability to adapt to a new modus operandi, one that is small, thoughtful, less reliant on global production, more eco-conscious, and able to withstand the next internationally disruptive crisis.

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