Don’t Dismiss The Fashion Industry – It Has Become An Emergency Service In This Time Of Crisis

Those who would rule fashion out as trivial should consider its global effort to make PPE. Sarah Mower – chief critic at US Vogue, the British Fashion Council’s ambassador for emerging talent and its chair of NewGen, reports...

Fashion PPE

by Sarah Mower |
Updated on

'People always think of fashion as quite frivolous and superfluous. But it’s surreal: now we’re the people who have skill sets to provide the protection that can save lives.’ This is the milliner Noel Stewart speaking, who I caught on the phone as he was finishing the latest batch of 1,700 visors, made by members of the British Hat Guild, which will be donated to London hospitals this week.

A surreal turnaround – you can say that again. Last time I saw Noel, he was backstage in Paris at Givenchy arranging his sensationally dramatic black floppy hat on the model opening the show. That was 2 March. Now, he’s one of the London East End millinery force who’ve joined up to the national #VisorArmy, supplying essential face protection for frontline staff. ‘It’s pop-up, and it feels quite guerrilla,’ he says. ‘We’re all within walking distance, so I can drop off the hundreds of foam strips and elastics that have to be cut out, collect them at social distance and then assemble them with the visors. Because we’re all used to speed and quality, this is something we can do at volume.’

The Visor Army was started by ICU consultant Deborah Braham as a small Facebook group. Harvy Santos, an East End milliner, has been putting up Instagram video treats showing him ridiculously dressed up, in action, in his studio. ‘I occasionally perform to make people laugh – it’s good to laugh,’ he says. But his posts end with the deadly serious appeal: a sign directing people to the GoFundMe Make A Visor Save A Hero page which funds the buying of components. ‘WE NEED MORE MATERIALS!’

Providing visors for frontline ICU staff – scrubs, surgical gowns, masks – even funding for vaccine research: who knew that an industry much-faulted for its superficiality, its feeding of narcissistic service consumerism and its damage to the planet would be the very one to weigh in with pandemic emergency services far more quickly than many a Western government? It’s a phenomenon that has taken hold at speed wherever you look: from designers, mega-brands and manufacturers to bespoke tailors, students, citizen volunteers, drivers – people involved in fashion everywhere in Italy, France and the US, and throughout the length and breadth of Britain.

They felt it coming first in Italy, where news of the first case of Covid-19 broke in the middle of Milan Fashion Week. The response to the unfolding disaster at the upper echelons has mostly been incredibly swift. Prada, Giorgio Armani, Versace, Moncler, Bulgari, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Gucci, LVMH, Valentino’s parent company, Chloé’s owners, Ralph Lauren, Tiffany have all been donating millions to local, international and UN efforts. Whether directed towards repurposing factories to make hand sanitiser and PPE, or fuelling vaccine development and medical research, the multi-pronged collaboration of mega-brands in the fight against the virus has become such a new normal that the only questions seem to hover above those who don’t. I wonder what effect this time will have on our loyalties in the future: will we want to see social responsibility literally woven into the fabric of what we buy?

In Britain, the reaction has been a magnificent mirror held up to the ingenuity and public-spirited generosity of the people who inhabit the fashion industry. What it’s showing us viscerally, in communities up and down the country, is how vital it is to have local manufacturing, and the massed participation of many overlooked talents. The impact is there for all of us to feel: that we must never again become a stranded island, dependent only on foreign imports. ‘The reason we’re in this mess is that everything was made in China,’ says Kate Hills of Make it British.‘But what it’s proving is that the willingness is there.’

At Burberry, volunteers who normally make trench coats in Castleford, Yorkshire are supplying the NHS with 100,000 pieces of PPE and rising. The company is foregoing Government furlough funding for all staff, donating to vaccine research at Oxford University and redirecting the voluntary salary cuts of senior staff and board members to an international aid fund. In Somerset, Mulberry staff are making gowns for Bristol Royal Infirmary, in response to a direct plea from the hospital’s ICU consultant Dr Jess Webster.

But the bigger scene, repeated everywhere, is that fashion activists are acting independently to throw up defensive shields around local hospitals and care workers who are crying out for help with PPE. From the citizen-organised For the Love of Scrubs, who are recruiting people with home sewing machines, to students using downloaded patterns from Central Saint Martins, all the way up to designers who sell luxury fashion to the world – all of them are organising directly with local hospitals after their volunteering offers fell on shamefully deaf Government ears.

It is personal for many. ‘I started working with Lewisham Hospital, because I was born there, and my mum and sister worked there,’ says Richard Quinn, who is now sending the jazziest floral-printed non- surgical scrubs ever to doctors and nurses who are DMing him from all over the country. He pops in matching masks made from the cut-offs with every set. Meanwhile, Phoebe English, Holly Fulton and Bethany Williams formed The Emergency Designer Network, making ‘hospital, but not Government-approved, garments for support staff and carers’, with a rapidly recruited army of 100 makers, including Simone Rocha, Roland Mouret, Emilia Wickstead and John Smedley, and firing up a logistics network from scratch with Net-A-Porter, Matches and more. Their Go Fund Me page donations go to free up desperately scarce PPE for ICUs.

Strikingly, the national effort is largely down to extraordinary British women overcoming the hurdles put in their way by Government indifference. Caroline Gration, whose daughter is head of an ICU unit, was driven to sideline her day job as organiser of The Fashion School children’s sewing programme to organise a sanitised, socially-distanced production unit making surgical gowns from repurposed operating theatre drapes for the Royal Brompton Hospital, to patterns made by designer Julie Brogger. ‘People from all walks of life have volunteered – teachers, film-makers, make-up artists. I think we’ve got the whole of the second floor of Selfridges here.’

Among them are Michael Halpern, whose regular business is super-glam sequinned flares, and Simon Holloway, the English creative director of the deluxe Italian collection Agnona, switching from handling infinitely fine beige camel cashmere to sewing plastic-coated fabric for wards. A compulsion to contribute hit him when the Italian industry went into lockdown. ‘As the scale of the infection and death rate in London started to skyrocket, the horror of the exposure to Covid-19 of our NHS frontline teams became apparent. People were and are dying,’ he says. ‘So it was an opportunity to take out my long- dormant sewing skills. It’s rare that the fashion industry can provide direct support to a life-threatening situation. Sewing here seemed like the least that I could do.’

This emergency has revealed a kindness, a resourcefulness, and a capacity for work that could bring hope of employment all over Britain. ‘People who have discovered new skills are now knocking at the door as they never did before. After this pandemic, I think fashion companies will be looking around for local production,’ says Kate Hills of Make It British. ‘There has to be a long-term solution for manufacturing.’

What we’re learning through this time will count for the future of our country. It’s taught us the power of localism, of what can be achieved even when there is no central system in charge. It might even change the way we look at the clothes we wear and who we want to buy from; even alter the reputation of fashion and the people who make it. It’s all becoming visible. And in the meantime, history will record that fashion people have stood up to play their part in fighting the biggest battle in a generation.

It’s remarkable, but simple, as far as Richard Quinn sees it. ‘The sooner everyone helps,’ he says, ‘the sooner this will be over.’

READ MORE: See What Fashion Brands Are Doing To Help In The Fight Against Coronavirus

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