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New York fashion icons embrace Cuomo's coronavirus mask challenge

Key Points
  • New York City-based fashion designers Christian Siriano and Naeem Khan, and clothing companies Rag and Bone and Eileen Fisher, have started making coronavirus masks.
  • They are answering the call to New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plea to businesses to pitch in with personal protective equipment for health-care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • The federal government is now advising everyone to wear a mask, rather than limiting the advisory to people who are sick.
Protective masks for sale are displayed in a store in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 2, 2020 in New York City.
Stephanie Keith | Getty Images

As the fight against the coronavirus continues, states are emphasizing the shortage of personal protective equipment for their health-care and front-line workers. Companies like Apple, AB Inbev and LVMH have been pivoting their business models to help produce or donate equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer. And on a local level, small business is lending a hand as well. In New York City, that effort includes the work of fashion designers. 

Shortages of PPE continue to hinder New York's ability to properly care for coronavirus patients. In response, the state set up a resource page so that small businesses and individuals in the state can contribute to the state's lack. On Thursday, during his daily coronavirus update, Gov. Andrew Cuomo reiterated the need for businesses to help with PPE and said the state would pay for the equipment.

"I ask businesses to think about the situation we're in and the possible opportunity," Cuomo said. "If you can do it, it's a business opportunity, it's a state need, it's a national need. ... We're not asking for a favor; we'll finance what you need in terms of transitioning, and we'll buy the product, and I will pay a premium, because we need it."

Cuomo tweet

The federal government is now advising everyone to wear a mask, rather than limiting the advisory to people who are sick. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio suggested that New Yorkers wear face coverings, not of medical grade, while out in public. But with masks already in short supply, many health-care professionals are quick to point out that sturdy N95 masks, already hard to find, are desperately needed by workers on the front lines and shouldn't be allocated to the general public. 

Designing for Michelle Obama, Kate Middleton and COVID-19

Designer Christian Siriano has started making masks for the city, and other companies have offered to help how they can.

Naeem Khan, a New York City-based fashion designer who has designed for the likes of Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton, announced on his fashion house's Instagram page that he would start making masks.

"My team is ready to start sewing CDC approved masks from medically approved fabrics from their isolated homes," the post read. 

"I'm a designer. I know how to construct, how to design, so I decided to design my own mask," Khan told CNBC. "I considered doing it in hemp fabric because it has antibacterial properties."

Khan's masks are lined with microfiber and contain a pocket into which a surgical mask can be inserted. While this offers an extra layer of protection, meaning they can be used by medical professionals, Khan noted that these masks are not meant to replace the much needed N95s used by front-line health-care workers.  

"These are not designed for people in the forefront of the corona fight," he said. 

Health care workers wearing Naeem Khan's masks.
Naeem Khan

Khan has posted a video of the fully constructed mask.

Khan's stores are all currently closed. With all of his seamstresses at home, Khan saw this opportunity as a way to keep them as a part of the business, even while operations are at a standstill.

"They have been allocated this to work from home and are continuing to be paid to help with this project," he said. "That's how I can keep them employed."

Khan has teamed up with Muslim American Leadership Alliance to help distribute the masks to hospitals such as Mount Sinai and some in Long Island, as well as to non-professionals who just need masks. He says the ability to get the word out on social media helped the cause immensely. He also started sending masks to families without enough money or who could not find masks. "They would direct-message me, and I would send them masks," Khan said of the Instagram connections made.

Social media has proved to be a source for many individuals to find or offer help. One Facebook group, Rosie the Seamstress (a reference to the World War II Rosie the Riveter campaign), was recently created and now has more than a million members, offering a list of resources and a forum to connect creators with those in need of masks.

On Thursday President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to require Minnesota manufacturing giant 3M to step up its production of desperately needed respirator masks for front-line health workers, an effort 3M says it already is doing

Khan says that once things return to normal, his business will get back to what it has always done, but he wanted to jump at the chance to help the city in a time of need.

"At least, for the moment, I think this would be great service," he said. "We have the technicality and the power to do it, so I would like to help my country." 

Clothing company Eileen Fisher, based in Irvington, New York, has started making masks from cotton they had on hand. Seamstresses are going in to work while maintaining social distancing — sewing machines are kept 6 ft apart — and some have volunteered to work from home. The company has offered to pay their employees for this work, and some have donated their time. 

"This is a big pivot for us," said Elizabeth Richman, deputy general counsel at Eileen Fisher. "We're a women's clothing company, and we manufacture with sustainability as one of our top priorities. Making a switch is something we're excited about, but we're not in a place to be providing medical-grade stuff right away."

An Eileen Fisher seamstress sews masks in response to the coronavirus crisis in New York.
Eileen Fisher

Richman heard there was a mask shortage for front-line workers such as police officers, firemen and EMS workers, so she reached out to New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, both of whom had already been working to get PPE in the hands of front-line workers. 

"Knowing we're not in the business of supplying medical-grade items and we wanted to respond quickly, we reached out to find the good fit," Richman said of the partnership.

Because Eileen Fisher is in the early stages of this new process, it has a goal to produce 300 to 500 masks a week and then scale that up as the company gets used to the process, and as more people work from home.

In addition, Eileen Fisher has been working with their overseas partners in Asia who are helping to deliver medical-grade masks that can be distributed locally in New York City. 

"The people on our team have hit the ground running — they're always impressive," Richman said. "But the ways that people have stepped up have reinforced everything I know is good about this company. We're here trying to be creative about how we can help."