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Fashion and Beauty Factories Are Shifting to Make Masks, Sanitiser and Other Pandemic Essentials

Manufacturers in Italy, France and beyond — including LVMH and Coty — are pivoting their production lines to create in-demand hydroalcoholic gel and masks. But what are the implications for the workers?
Atelier Miroglio Fashion in Alba | Source: Courtesy
  • Lauren Sherman

ALBA, Italy — Like many Italian manufacturers, Miroglio Group, a textile firm that makes fabrics for more than 3,000 different clients each year and also owns 11 women's fashion brands, including the plus-size label Elena Mirò, has been impacted by the spread of the novel coronavirus across the country. It is located in Piedmont, one of the harder-hit regions in Northern Italy, where medical professionals have been running low on supplies.

To support the local need — and to keep its own production line working — the company decided to try to make face masks that met the requirements of medical authorities. It took just a few hours, according to the group, to prototype and manufacture a cotton and elastane mask that was surgical-grade and rewashable. (The final version can be reused up to 10 times.) Over the next two weeks, Miroglio will manufacture 600,000 masks. The first 10,000 were delivered to medical authorities on March 14, with daily deliveries expected for the foreseeable future. (The company will be able to product 75,000 to 100,000 masks a day if need be.)

Miroglio isn’t the only factory in Italy pivoting its production to make masks, recalling wartime efforts when factories shifted to making military equipment, from rifles to airplanes.

Artemisia, a textile company based in Castel Goffredo, a town in the province of Mantua — which is part of the Lombardy region, home of the first major outbreak in Italy — is also making masks, according to a March 16 report in Il Sole 24 Ore, an Italian business newspaper. (At the time the article was published, those masks had yet to be approved by medical authorities, and Artemisia has yet to respond to BoF’s request for comment.)

In the US, American Apparel Founder Dov Charney is offering up the factory that produces his new brand, Los Angeles Apparel Company — another maker of basics like T-shirts and sweatshirts — to government authorities if they need somewhere to make masks stateside.

Inditex, the owner of fast-fashion leader Zara, is also producing masks and hospital gowns in Spain, both for patients and medical workers.

In France and other regions, beauty companies are converting their facilities to produce another product needed by medical professionals: hand sanitiser. On Sunday, French luxury group LVMH made headlines by being the first big company to announce that it would start producing hydroalcoholic gel in the factories that make fragrance and makeup for several of its brands, including Guerlain, Christian Dior and Givenchy. Several others have followed suit, including French beauty conglomerate L'Oréal, as well as Coty, which is preparing its factories to produce hydroalcoholic gel upon approval from the local authorities. (The decision was spurred, at least in part, by a government request.) That gel will then be given free of charge to medical and emergency services in areas that are in need.

“We must take action and lead by example to help all communities we are operating in during these dramatic times,” a Coty spokesperson told BoF in an email statement.

Smaller firms are also joining in. UK-based skincare company Pai is using its factories to produce hand sanitiser starting this week, planning to donate it to local schools and businesses.

In China, apparel manufacturers including Erdos and Cabbeen have volunteered to convert their clothing production to making masks and protective suits, propelled by both government requests but also a duty to honour their own corporate responsibility policies.

While these sorts of initiatives may be helpful, casting brands in a positive light as the human and economic toll of the outbreak sets in, it's only one way companies are working to help stop the spread of the virus. (Many brands, from Moncler and Prada to Armani and Versace, are also donating funds directly to relief efforts.)

"This is the biggest test of corporate responsibility that the world has seen. Where businesses have the know-how and capability to do something for the greater good, they should be coming out in force," said Rebecca Robins, global chief learning and culture officer for Interbrand and co-author of “Meta-luxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence." "The luxury industry has long talked about authenticity. How brands act in this crisis will give new definition to what it means to be authentic."

The question is how long these factories will be able to remain open if quarantine measures continue to intensify, and how they will pay their workers if they are not producing items that will be paid for by outside vendors. Across the world, apparel supply chains have been disrupted, just one element of an entire upheaval of the global fashion industry, which is on track to experience a major downturn for the coming year, if not longer.

In Italy (and elsewhere), factories are being sanitised and workers are practising social distancing, and the rise in the number of new cases is slowing in the country. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization announced that there were a total 31,506 cases in Italy, up 12.6 percent from 27,980 two days earlier, the slowest rate of increase since the outbreak was first identified on February 21.

In the case of multinational companies like LVMH and Coty, they are managing their own supply chain, and have the resources to continue paying workers. According to Miroglio, the government is paying a fee for the face masks. Some smaller firms, however, are considering shutting down their factories completely as they are unable to cover the costs associated with producing masks.

We’re tracking the latest on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on the global fashion business. Visit our live blog for everything you need to know.

Editor's Note: This article was updated on May 19, 2020, to include information about Inditex's mask and surgical gown donation programme.

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