By Kathleen Nicholson Webber
Open back, tie at the neck, tie at the waist, perforated (for easy tear off), slit cuff, thumb loop cuff, elastic cuff, disposable, reusable: Ed Gribbin can tell you that there is nothing simple about a medical gown.
His Merion Station office has three dozen medical gowns of every style, each serving a different purpose and each requiring a different performance textile, thread, expertise and equipment to make. Gribbin runs his own supply chain strategy consultancy in a field that skyrocketed to prominence with the coronavirus pandemic as hospitals and governments have competed for gowns, masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) vital to safe testing and treatment.
And as the pandemic wears on, his industry is seeing demand not only for more products, but also for goods made in North, Central and South America.
“Talking to hospitals, chief medical officers and purchasing chiefs at government agencies, there is a huge distrust of importing product from China,” Gribbin said.“Add that to the current trade tensions we have with China and the fact that at any given moment the administration could pull the plug and say the border is shut and we aren’t bringing anything in, everyone is a little skittish. We don’t want to be as reliant on China for production as we have in the past. The fact of the matter is we want to build a permanent supply chain here.”
In January, when few Americans had even heard of the coronavirus, Gribbin became president of the Americas Apparel Producers Network, with members across the globe encompassing the 30 links of the apparel supply chain “from the dirt to the shirt,” as he puts it.
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At the start of the pandemic, the group set up a site where suppliers could post their capacity to make critical PPE. Within 15 minutes of going live, it was flooded with posts from 1,000 companies offering capabilities, advice and tools, said Mike Todaro, managing director of AAPN.
“The postings were surprising. Fifty percent who had cut-and-sew capabilities were not in apparel. One was a parachute maker, and awning, tent and umbrella makers. They were people with ingenuity, reinventing their businesses to keep their lights on and help make PPE,” Gribbin said.
He had the Herculean task of categorizing those posts and building spreadsheets playing matchmaker to connect fabric mills with cut-and-sew operations to coordinate the production of critical medical supplies for hospital systems and FEMA. When Emory University asked Todaro for 90,000 gowns by June, he and Gribbin coordinated the effort. More than two dozen network members pitched in, among them Philadelphia’s Boathouse Sports.
Before March, more than 90 percent of gowns were made in and around China, which went into lockdown because of the virus. Supply chains were shut down, and hospitals had nowhere near the inventory that they needed.
“The demand for gowns in medical and nonmedical applications on a month-to-month basis is running 10 times what it was a year ago in July because so many people are using them that never used them before,” Gribbin said.
Doctor’s offices, dental and ophthalmologist practices, police departments and rescue workers all need gowns, often for the first time. And hospitals need many more gowns than ever.
“We just learned that FEMA wants 263 million gowns in the next six months when their original estimate had been 110 million,” Gribbin said.
Gribbin thinks he can work with three facilities in California, Cambodia and Colombia to start on that order with 20 million gowns.
But even as supply chains from China reopen, he said, it’s clear that demand for products made in North and South America is high.
Made in the Americas is preferred. “There is a huge distrust of importing product from China,” Gribbin said. “Add that to the current trade tensions we have with China and the fact that at any given moment the administration could pull the plug and say the border is shut.”
“Everyone is a little skittish. We don’t want to be as reliant on China for production as we have in the past,” he said. “We want to build a permanent supply chain here.”
Last month, the Trump administration made a change that could boost that effort. It moved gown purchasing from FEMA to the Defense Logistics Agency, which is part of the Department of Defense and gives preference to certain domestic products under what is known as the Berry Amendment.
“There is a lot of talk in Congress now, with bipartisan support, for extending the Berry Amendment to include critical medical supplies so they would have to be sourced in the U.S.,” Gribbin said. “It will not affect hospital systems, but it would affect the federal government and the way they buy and possibly state governments in buying PPE.”
As it is, the Department of Defense realized the United States does not have the capacity to produce 263 million gowns domestically, Gribbin said. Because of that, it broke the procurement into three tranches: anyone who could submit an American solution will get considered first, anyone from a country where the U.S. has a trade agreement is next, and then comes anywhere else such as China.
But there’s much more to Gribbin’s task even than sourcing an enormous number of gowns. He must also get the right kind of gowns, ranging from those that are simply resistant to liquid, all the way to gowns with a laminate polyethylene coating impervious to even viral matter. The highest-grade gowns have to be FDA approved.
Then there are disposable vs. reusable gowns. When Gribbin worked in the uniform industry in the 1980s and ’90s, the majority of gowns were reusable, and hospitals had laundry services. Then disposable gowns became popular for their convenience and cost — about $1 to make. But they get used once and go to a landfill along with medical waste. “Hospitals are now starting to ask for washable gowns, which will last longer and are better for the environment,” he said.
Demand for gowns shows no sign of slacking off, given enhanced safety protocols and uncertainty over the virus.
“We think there will be long-term work with state agencies, health-care systems who will all want domestic product. I believe 20% to 30% of medical product will be made in the USA or in this hemisphere. Just last week, the Air Force was on one group call requesting white papers from any interested party on what a government investment might look like in expanding domestic capacity to make more critical health-care supplies with the government as a financial partner with industry to make that happen.”
Some AAPN members are getting back to what they made before they switched to PPE and others are surfing the discussion board, still looking for opportunities in this tumultuous time. Gribbin takes pride in the network’s response. “The level of generosity, the sharing of information and resources, even with competitors, just made me feel really good about being in the industry.”
By Kathleen Nicholson Webber
Originally posted on WWD.com on May 20, 2015.
Tuscan native Simone Cipriani likes to call Africa “the new Italy.” While Tuscany traditionally has been a place where many fashion brands had their headquarters and artisans were at their core, Cipriani feels that “with mass production, the value of fashion was lost.”
This story first appeared in the May 20, 2015 issue of WWD. See More.
In an interview before a recent talk at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Cipriani said he wants to bring that artisanal value back to fashion. As the head and founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative, a flagship program of the International Trade Centre, which is a Geneva-based agency of the United Nations and World Trade Organization, he and his staff link top fashion talents to more than 7,000 marginalized artisans, the majority of them women, in East and West Africa, Haiti and the West Bank to produce luxury accessories, shoes and textiles.
Stella McCartney underscores the value in fair wages and the empowerment of women in making products through the Ethical Fashion Initiative. McCartney and the EFI began their partnership in 2011 in Kenya, where the designer produces handmade accessories with local artisans specializing in screen-printing and tailoring. She makes canvas bags there, like the Noemi tote.
Ilaria Venturini Fendi of Fendi started working with EFI in the development of her Carmina Campus brand of accessories. She manufactures mainly in EFI’s Nairobi hub. Vivienne Westwood, Stella Jean, Mimco, Chan Luu, Sass & Bide, Karen Walker, Osklen and retailer United Arrows are among other designers who work with EFI. The group also develops and advocates young and emerging designers from these regions like Lisa Folawiyo, Sophie Zinga, Christie Brown and Studio One Eighty Nine, working on product development and connecting them with international buyers.
It was while Cipriani was working in Kenya in 2009 that the U.N. approached him with the idea for this initiative. He combed the markets for artisans making sure workers were paid a living wage, helping to lift them out of poverty.
“Fashion is a vehicle for capacity building,” he said.
In Kenya, where the initiative began producing in 2009, unit volume rose from 7,000 units that year to more than 170,000 units in 2014. From 2013 — when they started with fabric production — to 2014, volume more than tripled from 3,400 meters to 12,000 meters.
Production hubs are now in Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ethiopia and Haiti and they have begun working in Palestine, Cambodia and Peru. The organization has offices in Geneva and London and expects to open one soon in New York.
Cipriani sets up the network that trains and oversees the production until the microbusinesses can be handed over to the communities. Building structures takes time. So does wooing designers to join him in this movement.
“This is tough because they know this is a long-term project, not just a season,” he said. “The production times are longer. It is not fast fashion, but many see the benefit.”
Westwood, in her 10th season with EFI, is one who has, and she understands the high price of such artisanal wares comes with the territory. Christopher DePietro, her marketing and merchandising director, says a cheap product is of no interest to them — an embroidered canvas clutch retails for $99 while a duffel goes for $438. “The driving force is whether it is ethically made,” DePietro said.
Cipriani added, “When designers commit, we let them know the boundaries for the country,” like skill sets and materials available.
When ITC started working with half-Haitian, half-Italian designer Stella Jean in 2013, she began buying handwoven cotton fabric and natural-dyed bogolan in Africa for her men’s and women’s lines. These vibrant striped fabrics caught the eye of Giorgio Armani, who invited her to show her spring 2014 collection in his Teatro Armani in Milan.
“My collaboration with ITC Ethical Fashion Project started thanks to my mentor Simonetta Gianfelici [ITC project representative for Altaroma], who introduced me to Simone Cipriani,” Jean said. “The ITC team guided me and gave me the opportunity to go to Burkina Faso, Mali and Haiti. There, I found a rare treasure, looking at the busy hands of extraordinary women who tell, with dignity and hard work, a creative and cultural mosaic without any kind of mystification. Our work together is about a proper, accountable business, which is environmentally sound, promoting sustainable economic development and opportunities in countries that do not need our charity.”
Cipriani has other design houses on his wish list: one in particular is Hermès, because of its history of artisan products.
“Consumers want authenticity,” Cipriani said. “It’s a huge movement that can change the paradigm of fashion. When we talk to salespeople in stores, they say consumers like hearing the story behind the product.”
EFI has social impact studies on these businesses, which some of EFI’s designers use in their marketing. “Some say, ‘this is a good product on its own, without that distinction,’” said Cipriani, “but I say, let’s spread the message.”
Luxury retailer Hirofumi Kurino, founder and creative director of United Arrows in Japan and Taiwan, makes clothing and accessories in Africa including clutches and totes with beading done by Maasai women for their Tege United Arrows line.
“The more I come to know fashion, the more I am attracted to handmade materials that [reflect] craftsmen’s culture over mass-commercialized products,” Kurino said. “The EFI project enables manufacturing of handcrafted products while helping to improve life conditions of the producers. This is not only meaningful, but also enriches our heart.”