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Fashion suppliers' NHS rescue mission

As the frontline fight against the Covid-19 coronavirus intensifies, UK suppliers and manufacturers have been quick to offer their services to the NHS for the production of personal protective equipment (PPE). 

In the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, suppliers have borne the brunt of retailers’ hardships. Cancelled orders, delays and strict lockdown regulations make day-to-day operations a challenge, putting the future of entire businesses in jeopardy.

In order to survive, suppliers and manufacturers are being forced to restructure operations and adapt how they work on a day-to-day basis.

In the absence of regular, conventional trade, some are looking outside the fashion world and responding to the chorus of NHS professionals decrying the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. These are gowns, masks, aprons and other items that help protect medical staff from infection while treating coronavirus patients.

I have a workforce that wants to work, and it’s good for the nation as well

Jenny Holloway, Fashion Enter

Fashion and retail businesses have been quick to lend their supply chains to the cause, not just in the UK but around the globe. Last week Burberry became the latest high-profile name to throw its weight behind efforts by retooling factories and offering production capacity for PPE.

The luxury brand plans to make gowns and face masks for medical workers at its Yorkshire factory, and is using its wider supply chain to fast-track 100,000 masks to the NHS. Many fashion businesses globally have also switched production (box, below).

British manufacturers are ready to respond to the shortage of surgical gowns and personal protection equipment

British manufacturers are ready to respond to the shortage of surgical gowns and personal protection equipment

Additionally, Fashion Roundtable, the secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Textiles and Fashion, has announced that it had brought together designers, manufacturers, the UK Cabinet, the Department for International Trade and several brands with the aim of supplying PPE to the NHS and additional protective products to the general public. 

Kate Hills, founder of Make It British, is working to unite UK manufacturers to produce PPE for frontline staff, while British designer Phoebe English is leading a team of independent UK designers – including Bethany Williams and Holly Fulton – to produce non-frontline protective clothing with the Home Office’s Emergency Designer Network. 

London calling

One manufacturer already turning its hand to the production of face masks is London-based Fashion Enter. 

CEO Jenny Holloway explains that the factory is also making 5,000 scrubs a week for NHS frontline workers, and has also started production of non-surgical protective face masks, for which is has capacity to produce 15,000 a week. 

Orders overall are slightly down but the factory is still creating goods for clients including Asos and Coast, in addition to making masks. As a result, Fashion Enter remains up and running – albeit with new social-distancing policies in place.

“I have a workforce that wants to work, and it’s good for the nation as well,” says Holloway. “We’re trying to carry on as normal. It’s not normal, but we have to carry on.”

The size of the issue is enormous, and the government needs sources of supply that can ramp up quickly

Nigel Lugg, UKFT


Holloway explains that there are differences in producing medical items – for example, there is no pressing because of the protective chemicals coating the fabrics, and each item is created in its entirety at once, rather than in a series of steps.

The same machinery is used, so no additional training was required for workers.

However, as other factories are already being forced to close their operations, Holloway has concerns about a longer-term skills shortage: “If the factories close, and employees are furloughed and end up stacking shelves, they won’t come back. We’ll lose them. There will be a skills drain out of the UK manufacturing industry.”

National effort

Kate Hills, founder and CEO of UK manufacturing platform Make It British, believes PPE production could demonstrate the value and capacity of local manufacturing.

“The government is realising they’ve made a mistake by off-shoring so much production,” she says. ”Now the whole world wants [face masks and PPE], and we don’t have an instant home-grown solution.

“Producing this equipment is definitely a viable option to keep factories up and running. We have the capacity: we could make millions and millions of these items.”

She adds that the swathes of cancelled orders – from retailers such as Arcadia Group, Primark, Oasis and Warehouse, Edinburgh Woollen Mill Group and more  – will enable suppliers to offer capacity to make health and safety clothing: “Most factories have pretty much shut down unless they have started re-equipping [to make PPE]. Orders are being cancelled left right and centre, but many factories are ready and willing to help make things for the NHS.”

One such business is the luxury menswear brand Private White VC. CEO James Eden tells Drapers that its Manchester factory, where all product is made, is currently closed. All workers were told to expect a four-to-12-week “sabbatical” from operations and have been furloughed. 

“We’re making luxury apparel – it’s not essential or life critical,” says Eden. “We have ceased activities to keep staff safe and sound.”

James Eden has closed Private White VC's factory but says he is

James Eden has closed Private White VC’s factory but says he is “on standby” to make protective clothing for the NHS

However, he describes the business as “on standby”, and has contacted the NHS to offer assistance in procuring and creating necessary equipment. The relevant paperwork has been signed, but Eden says Private White VC has not yet been called up.

“We make relatively complicated apparel, so if there is a need for the kind of equipment used in hospitals, I am more than happy to see what we can do as a factory to offer our support,” says Eden.

He remains anxious for the wider sector: “The situation is extremely precarious for a lot of businesses. For many, there has been a complete cessation of turnover and cashflow.

“We’re not sure what stock we’re going to need when. If nothing changes until September, what do people do with the spring 20 stock that they have got now?”

“We carry a lot of stock and we make a lot of stock ahead of the season. We have already got the materials in for our autumn 20 stock. But if we don’t need to use that, it will still be relevant for the next year. It is a bit of a drain on capital but not a disaster.”

Christopher Nieper, CEO of David Nieper, also offered to put the womenswear brand and manufacturer’s closed factory at Alfreton, near Nottingham, and 300 staff “at the disposal of the NHS”. Despite discussions with the NHS procurement agencies, he says: “We were faced with a huge, centralised administrative blockage that prevented us from serving our healthcare heroes.”

Instead, he went directly to hospitals in the local East Midlands area, and secured an order to supply nine of them with surgical scrubs and gowns. A volunteer team worked over the Easter weekend to make the first 1,000 garments and furloughed staff have now returned to work to fulfil the order.

Standing up

Since the outbreak began in the UK, the UK Fashion and Textile association (UKFT) says it has been inundated with offers of assistance from factories and manufacturers keen to help provide medical staff with PPE. However, chairman Nigel Lugg says that in reality, only manufacturers with large-scale operations are likely to be able to offer sufficient capacity. So producing PPE is unlikely to provide a lifeline for small, struggling suppliers.

“We’ve had lots of fantastic people offering their help, which is really admirable, but we have to look at the practicalities,” he says. “The size of the issue is enormous, and the government needs sources of supply that can ramp up quickly. What the government will be doing is taking the best in the industry.” He cites the example of the government’s order of 10,000 ventilators from appliance maker Dyson.

David Nieper staff wearing scrubs the womenswear manufacturer made for local Midlands hospitals

David Nieper staff wearing scrubs the womenswear manufacturer made for local Midlands hospitals

Lugg, too, fears for the future of the industry: “There’s a tsunami going through the global supply chain. Cancelled orders, deferred payments and a lack of cashflow” are placing exceptional demands on manufacturers. “Suppliers are the lifeblood of the industry. There needs to be a unification of the industry, a moratorium to talk about the issues being faced.”

Despite no official policy from government, many factories, including Private White VC’s facility, have shut down. Those which are able to remain open – be it for PPE production or standard orders – are putting new and stringent strategies in place to ensure the safety of staff.

Laura Gore, managing director of silk supplier Vanners, says its 67,000 sq ft factory in Sudbury, Suffolk, is being run by a “base crew” of 18 to 20 people every day, while all those who can work from home. Out of a total workforce of 84, 20 staff have been furloughed.

“The people that we have to have in are those doing physical manufacturing: weavers, dyers and warpers,” she says. “We introduced gloves for staff and we have hand sanitiser stations across the site.

“We are cleaning down all machinery regularly, but because we’re now operating with a small team, people are also able to stick to their own looms, all of which are well spaced apart.”

Vanners is holding stock in the factory for customers in the US and Italy, but orders from Japan are still in demand, and being chased by customers.

Gore says it would theoretically be simple to switch production to PPE, and the company has registered its availability to assist.

Many suppliers may feel the fates of their business hang in the balance, as the unimaginable situation ravages fashion and retail across the globe. The torrent of goodwill coming forth from suppliers is positive, but the reality is complex, and may not be the lifeline some producers need.

Protection brigade: fashion switches to healthcare

Burberry Retooling its Yorkshire factory and promising 100,000 masks to the NHS

David Nieper Making gowns and scrubs for hospitals near its factory in the Midlands

H&M Group Pledged to ask all of its 750 suppliers to produce PPE and masks

Lacoste Produced 100,000 masks and adapted its factory in Argentina to produce masks and gowns

Reformation Partnering with the City of Los Angeles to make 5 million masks at its LA factory

Wolford Assisting to produce 200,000 masks from its Vienna factory

Chanel Plans for all factories to produce surgical face masks, pending approval from the French government

LVMH Secured up to 40 million medical or surgical grade face masks from Chinese suppliers – to be provided to the French healthcare system.

Kering Supplying 3 million surgical masks to France, and retooling brand factories to manufacture more

Uniqlo Parent company Fast Company will supply 10 million across Italy, the US and Japan

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