Designers can’t make N95s in their studios, as they require specific equipment and must adhere to strict regulations. But larger brands or fashion groups with factories in China, where most N95s are produced, may be able to adjust their supply chains to make them. Zinntex, a New York-based apparel group owned by brothers Ricky, Ithan, and Barry Zinn, spent most of last week reorganizing its supply chain and partnering with suppliers in China to do just that. Zinntex is now able to produce 100,000 of them a day, and the Zinns are in touch with Governor Cuomo to get them into New York hospitals.
Small designers shouldn’t be deterred from trying to help, either. They can purchase N95s and donate them to hospitals, or they can support new platforms like Mask a Hero or Mask Match, which are collecting N95s to give to hospital workers. Pyer Moss’s Kerby Jean-Raymond has transformed his studio into a donation center for N95s and other medical supplies. (This writer is also working on collecting N95s from the global fashion community—call me!) These initiatives exist because there are, in fact, tons of N95s out there—they just aren’t in the right hands. The shortage partly comes down to the millions of regular citizens who purchased N95s in January and February, leaving few for the medical professionals who really need them.
On that note, a less tangible, but equally impactful way designers can make a difference is by educating their followers about what kinds of masks they should be using. Unless you’re working in a hospital, are immunocompromised, or live with someone who’s been diagnosed with COVID-19, you do not need to wear an N95 mask. In fact, the CDC says you don’t need to wear a mask at all, but if wearing one makes you feel safer—or inhibits you from touching your face—go with a fabric mask or bandana.
As for those fabric masks, I think designers should keep making them—they just need to be careful to market them to the right people, like you and me. Selling masks on Instagram can help keep their staff employed and their community engaged, especially if they’re using beautiful leftover materials. “Maybe we should start a trade-in program,” Howard told me. “Bring in an N95 for hospital workers, and get a ‘fashion mask’ made of leftover fabric in return.” It’s an idea worth exploring, because the shortage is likely to plague us for weeks, if not months, and we need to do everything we can to get proper masks in the hands of healthcare workers.
The CFDA echoed these sentiments, and has been working closely with the New York City Economic Development Corporation to gather information and resources for designers. “The various forms of fabric masks that the industry and everyday Americans are making cannot protect medical professionals as much as the N95 and KN95 masks,” Cal McNeil, a program manager at the CFDA, insists. “The phrase ‘anything is better [than nothing]’ is only valid to a point, so I think considering a shift to produce other PPE [personal protective equipment] products that can end up in the hands of hospitals and keep their front-line workers the safest should take precedence.”
Those products could include isolation gowns, which doctors and nurses wear over their scrubs in certain scenarios. They’re typically non-sterile and are used for physical—not respiratory—protection, so the likelihood of hospitals accepting them is much higher. The CFDA stresses that “those who are contributing to PPE production [should] ensure they are producing goods that can be of use to the most critical groups, such as medical professionals, or those on the front lines of fighting this virus, so hospitals can accept the PPE products being made.” As for the rest of us: Stay home, buy a fabric mask, and donate whatever you can!