The North Texas Fashion Industry is Making Medical Masks Amid Shortages to Fight COVID-19

We spoke with six locals in fashion who are all facing the coronavirus pandemic head-on by sewing, importing, sourcing, or donating medical masks.

Nearly every industry has been hit hard by COVID-19, and fashion is no exception. Events are cancelled or postponed, buying and selling has slowed, brick-and-mortar shops are closed, much of production has halted, and the supply chain has been completely shaken. Despite retailers and manufacturers dealing with the tumultuous repercussions of a global pandemic—and many being at a stand still—the fashion industry isn’t bowing down. In fact, brands across the world are stepping up to face coronavirus head-on, and North Texas is no exception.

Businesses of every size have started producing masks and other types of personal protective equipment for healthcare professionals fighting on the frontline against coronavirus. While many were individually motivated, the movement largely came last week when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put out a call-to-action for businesses to “be creative” and consider making medical supplies (like masks, gloves, and gowns) if they were able to do so.

Big-name global luxury labels immediately answered. Prada, Christian Siriano, Inditex, and more have begun producing masks for their home countries, as reported in Esquire and many other fashion outlets. Not as commonly discussed is the independent brands located outside of locations known as “fashion hubs”—but that doesn’t mean they’re not doing their part.

“Our fashion heroes are not the big names you see on TV or boasting fame at New York or Paris Fashion Weeks,” Leah Frazier, owner of Think Three Media and local ‘fashionpreneur,’ told Dallas Innovates. “They’re the smaller, independent designers and retailers who are just as talented and who are being just as resourceful right here in the City of Dallas with their selfless acts.”

Dallas fashion professionals—everyone from designers and retailers to manufacturers and creative directors—are using their resources to design, produce, and ship medical-grade or N95 masks throughout the region.

Although many have individually felt the pain caused by COVID-19, that hasn’t slowed any efforts. Frazier says she isn’t at all surprised by the outpouring of generosity from the local community though.

“In times such as these, when many of our smaller fashion businesses, mom and pop shops, and designers are suffering, and sales are dramatically down, they’ve turned to innovation and doing what they know how to do best to assist the community: design, sew, source and manufacture,” she says. “Our fashion community has always run deep and has always been strong, but the number of individuals who are now using their talents for good, makes me even more proud of those who call Dallas home.”

We spoke with six of those individuals to get a closer look behind the scenes at the imperative work being done.

And if you or someone you know needs to be added to the list, drop us a line here—these are the local stories that need to be shared.

Daniel Mofor
Founder and CEO
Don Morphy

Daniel Mofor’s Don Morphy is a menswear label (though he also styles women) behind made-to-measure tuxedos and custom suits. Mofor and his Design District showroom have seen fast success since founding in 2014; he’s designed for Emmitt Smith, T.D. Jakes, Dwight Howard, and P. Diddy, and last year signed a collaborative initiative with Kathy Ireland Worldwide. But business has slowed down tremendously during the last two weeks of the coronavirus, he says. However, he knows that now is the time to make sure our Dallas-Fort Worth community stays strong and well.

So Mofor and the Don Morphy team are making their factories available to help mitigate supply chain delays. They will be producing supplies for medical professionals, and already currently have a few hundred N95 and KN95 masks on the way, all of which will be donated to healthcare facilities in the region. Several more will immediately go into production.

“It has been extremely hard for us to stand by and see so many people getting infected and dying from COVID-19. Due to the rapidly growing cases in the U.S. and worldwide, we empathize greatly with healthcare workers who have been on the frontline fighting and making sure we are safe,” Mofor says. “We have also seen so many pleas from several leaders and healthcare professionals and institutions of severe PPE shortages and think it is only right for us to step up and help.”

There is a pro bono component to the efforts, coming directly from Don Morphy to healthcare providers. Mofor says he also has the option to make the factories available to healthcare institutions that need to have masks produced overseas.

“We hope that this would not only help reduce spreading of the virus locally, but most importantly, we want our healthcare workers to have the tools, protection and confidence they need to help us fight this deadly virus,” he says. “We are in this together and need to work together.”

Khanh Nguyen
Founder and Creative Director
Nha Khanh

[Photo: Nha Khanh/Facebook]

Much of Khanh Nguyen’s production is currently halted, like many in the industry. Her label, Nha Khanh, aims to empower women through ready-to-wear clothing, while delivering “feminine elegance with a modern edge.” A true entrepreneur, Nguyen has also founded BéBloom Kids, a luxury fashion rental business for children, and Nha Khanh Atelier, which makes custom bridal and evening wear. She knows the grind—and that’s shown through her coronavirus efforts.

Nguyen and her “fashion troops” (a team of four skillful seamstresses, a pattern maker, cutter, and two staff members) have been using their own fabrics and materials in-stock to sew masks. Everyone is donating their own time and talent from home, with the goal to produce 1,000 cloth face masks. It’s all completely free of charge.

The team has purchased materials such as non-woven garment bags to use as filters and bendable strips out of their own pocket, Nguyen says, though many people have reached out offering assistance.

“The 1,000 masks project is entirely pro bono,” she says. “However, due to overwhelming requests (we are now close to 2,000 masks requested), I’m afraid we will soon be exhausted with our resources and might have to resort to public, friends, and family funding if the requests keep rising.”

The cloth masks Nguyen produces aren’t meant to replace medical N95 or surgical masks, but they do bring a level of comfort and prolong the usage of medical masks while the U.S. suffers from a supply scarcity. She hopes the effort will add relief to local healthcare professionals risking their lives everyday as we all go to war with “an invisible enemy.”

“This is our community, our friends and family are out there risking their lives to save us,” she says. “We want to put our time and resources to good use. It is the least that we can do to create some protective gears for them due to this devasting PPE shortage our country is facing.”

Jenny Siede
Chief Design Thinker and Maker
In Style Exchange

Arlington-based In Style Exchange is a product design and technology innovation development company that does fashion wearables design and manufacturing. The team has been providing product solutions to the apparel industry for more than 16 years, specifically through a lens of smart devices and IoT. Jenny Siede and her team manage every step of the product development life cycle, from ideas to market, ensuring high quality along the way.

With this work, and her unique background in both software engineering and fashion design, Siede knew the first task was to understand the requirements of the product being designed and produced. She had been asked to make masks before, but turned down the requests. Then, Gov. Cuomo spoke and she became determined to find temporary ways to address the filtration need of a medical mask.

“After I put on my thinking hat, and after I discussed with my husband [a molecular microbiologist and founder of SantaFe Biolabs], I have concluded that coffee filters will be a good alternative to provide some form of protection, at least PM2.5 (which is the amount of microbes that could pass through),” Siede says. “The best thing is that the cone shape allows a snug enough fit that mimics the original N95 masks.”

[Photo: In Style Exchange/Instagram]

Siede and her team already use 3D software to create sewing patterns and fit, which is the same design process with the temporary coffee filter masks. She has 22 machines, software, a cutting room, and many years of experience with developing new concepts, so she says she understands what not to do in terms of product safety.

“I am compelled to help alleviate the current situation that some of the local clinics and facilities are unable to find safe protective gear due to shortage. I just want to help as much as I can but still committed to make safer make-shift products,” she says. “It turns out that a group of nurses are also making coffee filter medical masks based on the original proposed design by an engineer, Daniel Bersak. I am excited that my idea is being validated by another engineer as a temporary solution.”

Siede says she has also been helping entrepreneurs and inventors develop their own ideas, many who have new materials for making protective gear and new lines of products. 

Katy Messersmith
Katydid, Inc.

Designer and entrepreneur Katy Messersmith is the brains behind Katydid, an apparel, accessories, and gifts designer located in the Dallas Design District. The brand was created for the “adventure-seeking, outdoors-loving woman,” with stylish items tailored to beach outings, weekend getaways, and more.

For more than 15 years, Katydid has imported hundreds of items from various regions around the world, giving Messersmith a wide network of suppliers. In the wake of COVID-19, she started reaching out to those she trusts, and that’s how she got started importing personal protective equipment (PPE).

The process was slow at first, given the shortage overseas and the blocking of exports. Messersmith says she couldn’t sleep—but as soon as she was able to jump in, she did.

“My brother is a nurse in Washington state, so it really hit home for me, and my mom has a rare lung disease. I knew I wanted to help protect my loved ones from COVID-19 as well as others on the frontline. Our sense of knowing people that we knew and respected were in harm’s way and if we could help with our resources it was worth diving into,” she says. “Once we knew the suppliers could manufacture the PPE, we had to dive into what customs is going to want and we had never had to deal with the FDA before, so that was enlightening. “

So far, Messersmith and her team have brought in two small shipments of 2,000 and donated it all to healthcare professionals, friends, or family with underlying health conditions. Capital from Katydid funded the upfront shipping, customs, and labor costs. And more is on the way.

[Photo: Courtesy Katy Messersmith]

“We have larger shipments on the way on a weekly basis and hope to help as long as there is a need,” Messersmith says. “Some will be donated and some will be resold with a minimal markup just to cover our expenses. For the most part, we just want to help our community and help keep healthcare professionals, policeman and fireman safe while they are working the front lines. We have to have them in good health to get through this.”

Messersmith says she is also able to ship PPE to Katydid’s warehouse to distribute locally, or ship directly to facilities, depending on regulations. Her overall goal is to alleviate some of the early distribution pains while large American companies ramp up their manufacturing capabilities. 

Julie McCullough
Co-Founder and Designer

Harkensback, owned by local entrepreneurs Julie McCullough and Mike Arreaga, is a fairly new shop in Bishop Arts that’s full of clothes, bags, pottery, shoes, home decor, and more. (It’s also currently doing online sales during coronavirus). McCullough herself has designed a namesake clothing line, founded folksie, and created The Pin Show. She’s dedicated to making wardrobe staples through sustainable practices out of her Oak Cliff studio, employing women along the way.

But when coronavirus hit, McCullough, like many independently owned businesses, had to close Harkensback, put her sewing studio on hold, and lay off her staff. She had just moved into the new space in January, and had planned a grand opening for this week. She says the whole thing was devastating.

“Staying afloat and putting food on their tables was very important to me, my team has been with me for years and they are the reason we are where we are,” she says. “I felt like I had failed them, so when the opportunity came to get back to work and help others who our country has failed, we flipped our switches, developed four mask patterns based on needs, and started shipping out yesterday.”

So now, McCullough is in the business of producing masks for healthcare, high-risk, and other facilities in need. She and her team are covering the supplies and cost of their usual sewing team, which also keeps them working during this time. More supplies may have to be ordered in the future, bumping up the price, but McCullough says she currently has a lot of people paying a bit extra if they can.

“At this time we are just trying to fill orders. I hope to be out of this business as fast as I got into it by seeing a flood of N95 masks from our government and suppliers,” she says. “We have been in this business two days… somehow the artists are now in charge of the one thing that could save lives and it is gut wrenching and scary. I will do it, but I am looking forward to the day I make my last mask.”

Trina Terrell
General Manager 
Mark Cuban Heroes Basketball Center 

The Mark Cuban Heroes Basketball Center isn’t in the fashion industry traditionally, but they fit in just as well with the rest. The organization provides training on and off the court for local students, providing both athletic and life skills. But it also presents the Suit Up Experience, a program that gives young men in need professional looking suits and accommodates them with haircuts, styling, grooming, resume writing, and more.

[Photo: via the Mark Cuban Heroes Basketball Center]

Since founding, the program has evolved into a large network. Trina Terrell says she’s been working with kids, parents, volunteers, mentors, partners, and supporters to call, check, and connect with one another. She’s also asking how they can help.

After social media posts began circulating about the call for masks and PPE, Terrell says the owner of Indigo 1745 reached out to her team letting them know Harkensback (above) was sewing masks. She quickly began calling her network.

“We asked one of our partners, Sew for Life, if they could sew masks not just for healthcare providers and first responders, but for our parents, mentors, and volunteers who work in grocery stores, warehouses, drive trucks, restaurants, entrepreneurs, or anyone who interfaces with the public,” she says. “We are donating 100 percent of the masks produced by Sew for Life. We did secure donations to cover the cost of additional material as well as try to cover any labor costs.”

Terrell says the decision was influenced by the center’s kids, interns, and families being impacted by COVID-19 in more ways than one. That goes for the thousands of young men that are a part of the Suit Up Experience, and a former intern who is working at a testing site.

“Many of our kids were in college or trade school. Many of our parents, as well as some of our mentors and volunteers, are first responders, truck drivers, warehouse employees. Some work in grocery stores and restaurants,” she says. “We wanted to provide them masks and gloves.”

In addition, the Mark Cuban Heroes Basketball Center has activated its team to be a resource for kids and parents who need a sounding board by connecting them with licensed counselors. The center had to discontinue its trainings, programs, and services for the foreseeable future, but has added to its suite of mobile programs and services.

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