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PPE: From healthcare crisis to fashion trend

A few months ago, Eric Phu, co-founder of made-to-measure t-shirt brand Citizen Wolf, started investigating how to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE) at the company’s factory in Sydney.  

Like others in the retail sector, Phu had heard about the global shortage of face masks, surgical gowns and gloves that was sending PPE prices through the roof and putting healthcare workers’ lives at risk during the coronavirus pandemic.  

Unlike most brands, however, he had access to a laser cutting machine and a team of skilled sewers who could make PPE locally. And with demand for discretionary goods like t-shirts in freefall, he had the capacity to do so. It seemed like a win-win.   

But almost as soon as Phu started researching the relevant standards and sent a request for information to the Australian government, he encountered obstacles.

“Getting the right materials – they need to be medical grade – as well as the patterns to be compliant [with the standards] is really hard, especially for small brands,” Phu told Inside Retail.

“Besides being very convoluted, there’s a cost involved to obtain the standards. And while some have been released for free, it’s still a maze to go through them, and we needed a lot of help to interpret them.”

In the end, Phu decided against making PPE, at least until the government provides more support and direction for new manufacturers like Citizen Wolf.

“We are still willing to help when the time comes,” he said. 

Even large fashion brands like Nobody Denim, which boasts a 2500sqm factory in Melbourne, have seen their PPE pivots held up by red tape.

“We are still working on it and we need to be persistent that something will come out of it,” John Condilis, Nobody Denim’s managing director, told Inside Retail.

“We are not going to give up and it’s about creating a model of creating PPE for generations to come.”

A chic alternative

As the number of new coronavirus cases in Australia nears zero, the shortage of medical grade PPE no longer appears to be as critical as it was a few months ago. But people’s eyes have been opened to the opportunity in this niche category, and several retailers are taking steps to make PPE a permanent part of their offering.

Overseas, big brands are also taking up the opportunity. Designer label Off-White is selling a  face mask for US$95, while Disney is offering reusable masks featuring Disney, Star Wars and Marvel characters (the organisation donated one million face masks to communities in need recently).

Local womenswear brand Fella Hamilton has been making scrubs, surgical gowns and face masks at its Moorabbin, Victoria, factory for the past two months. While the brand initially hoped to supply hospitals dedicated as COVID-19 hubs, most of its orders so far have come from private hospitals, aged care facilities and medical and dental clinics.  

Sharon Hamilton, Fella Hamilton’s CEO, has been in touch with several agencies involved in the process of supplying hospitals and healthcare workers and has listed the brand on a directory of garment manufacturers that has been distributed to state governments.

“I think a lot of departments [are] just waiting and sussing out to make sure they know where to order if they need them,” she told Inside Retail.

In the meantime, Fella Hamilton is selling PPE directly to customers through its e-commerce site and plans to expand the range off the back of strong sales.

“We are still selling our scrubs and gowns well,” Hamilton said.

According to a recent report from market research firm Valuates, the global PPE market is expected to reach US$58.7 billion (A$89.9 billion) by 2025, fuelled by the COVID-19 crisis. The fastest growth is expected to occur in Asia Pacific, thanks in part to consumer preferences for products that incorporate both protection and fashion.

That is where brands like Papinelle are getting involved. Best known for selling silk pyjama sets, the retailer recently decided to turn some of its leftover fabric into matching silk face masks.

“Using silk provides a chic alternative to standard masks and also has the added benefit of being sustainable, washable and reusable,”  Renae James, Papinelle’s founder, told Inside Retail.

The masks are not designed for medical use, though they do have a pocket to accommodate disposable filters, but rather with travel in mind.

“We imagine they will be the new eye mask on flights,” James said.

Because she’s not targeting healthcare workers, James didn’t have to jump through hoops to get her masks on the market. And customers seem comfortable with the message that they don’t offer medical-grade protection.

Papinelle’s first batch of face masks sold out in just one week, and its second run was gone in nine days.

“We are receiving emails daily from customers who would like to be advised of when we will receive more stock, so it seems that the organic way of letting our customers know of the existence of this product has worked and has been taken the right way,” James said.

“We would love to offer this silk option to our customers for as long as it will be needed.”

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