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 in HAND/EYE Magazine on May 10, 2017.
Tonle has become a hit with ethical consumers worldwide.
By Kathleen Nicholson Webber
Originally posted on EcoWatch on March 22, 2017.
In the opening scene of the new documentary RiverBlue, deep magenta wastewater spills into a river in China as the voice of fashion designer and activist Orsola de Castro can be heard saying “there is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers.”
The film examines the destruction of rivers in Asia caused by the largely unregulated textile industry. It also connects today’s consumer appetite for fast fashion as a cause of this environmental degradation and explores how manufacturing innovation could help solve this global problem.
Co-directed by award-winning documentarians David McIlvride and Roger Williams and produced by Lisa Mazzotta, RiverBlue: Can Fashion Save the Planet was almost three years in the making and follows internationally celebrated river conservationist, Mark Angelo, as he paddles the rivers devastated by a toxic brew of chemical waste from the denim and leather industries. Angelo explained that these waterways in China, India and Bangladesh are devoid of life even as local communities rely on these rivers for drinking and bathing. The water in these rivers has become a public health crisis with a high incidence of cancer and gastric and skin issues afflicting those who work in the industry or live nearby.
In Kanpur, India alone there are more than 400 tanneries dumping toxic chromium into the water supply which subsequently turns up in cow’s milk and agriculture products.
“We are committing hydrocide,” said Sunita Narain, director general of Center for Science and the Environment in India. “We are deliberately murdering our rivers.”
The question the film poses to viewers: Are brand-name clothing corporations disregarding the environment in their zeal to make their clothes cheaper and cheaper and what role does the consumer play?
“Low cost clothing has a high cost attached to it, one to the environment and public health,” explained Angelo.
The impetus for the film came from a photo McIlvride found online. He and Williams, producer and director of photography, wanted to do a film on rivers. McIlvride found, on Google Images, a photo taken by NASA of China’s Pearl River with a dark blue streak of pollution running through it.
“It was the area of China where most of the blue jeans are manufactured,” he explained. “I thought everyone wears jeans. We could bring this problem to the world stage.”
The team thought if these rivers are being destroyed, what is the human impact? The film drills down to look at how jeans are made, specifically distressed jeans that are so popular now and how the chemicals used in the distressing process have been especially detrimental to workers, rivers and surrounding communities.
This decline has not happened overnight but rather over decades. For the denim industry, it started after the signing of the much talked about North American Free Trade Agreement. From the 1960s to the 1990s, El Paso Texas was the blue jeans capital of the world producing 2 million pair of jeans a week. The North American Free Trade Agreement allowed brands to find cheaper labor outside of the U.S., initially denim manufacturers left for Mexico and subsequently to China, Indonesia and Bangladesh where wages were low and environmental regulations weak.
As prices for denim jeans plummeted and consumers bought more of them, it was the waterways that paid the price. Today, the average American buys four pairs of jeans a year. In Europe they buy 1.5 jeans a year. Now in China’s Xintang province (where the movie’s polluted river photo came from) 300 million pair of jeans are made a year. Consider that one pair of jeans uses 920 gallons of water and many mills produce without water treatment plants.
The solution the film’s producers unveil is two-fold: through brand and mill innovation and consumer education and change.
McIlvride was determined to find brands making jeans without environmental damage. He located the father of distressed jeans: Francoise Girbaud who introduced the eponymous stone washed jean decades ago.
“It took 40 years before we realized what we made and what we did was wrong,” said Girbaud in the film.
In LA now, the designer was trying to re-establish himself as manufacturer of good jeans when McIlvride found him.
“He led us to the Spanish company Jeanologia,” Mcllvride said, “where they distress jeans by engraving images on the fabrics with lasers (light and air) eliminating water without increasing the cost.”
While filming the movie, denim manufacturers barred the filmmakers from shooting inside their facilities. It was not until they edited the film, that an innovative, Milan-based brand allowed them access. Italdenim has put money into water treatment at their mill and created a dye fixant made with chitosan (derived from the exoskeleton of crabs), a substance that is not dangerous for laborers to touch and saves money by allowing reuse of the wastewater.
“Going forward, the leaders of the fashion industry and other industries will have to be much more aggressive in cleaning up and make sure they are not making money off environmental destruction,” said former Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo, one of the experts interviewed in the film.
Angelo agreed: “I think all corporations have to be accountable for their environmental practices. No one has the right to damage or destroy a river. More within the textile sector have to commit to a fashion industry without pollution. And, the consumer has the power but has to seek out clothing made in an environmentally friendly manner. That would go a long way to improve things.”
McIlvride hopes the movie will be an agent of change and thinks teens and college students, who buy the most fast fashion, are the ones who can make the most change.
“They are the ones who should know about this and try to cut back on their consumption. If they see the impact of these retailers, I think they would be receptive to change because they are socially conscious,” he said. “We want this to have an impact on the consumer level. We want consumers to ask themselves, ‘do you really need to buy more clothes.’ Consumerism is the problem.”
We are hoping we are taking the same route that the organic food movement took. When consumers learn more they will make different choices.
By Kathleen Nicholson Webber
Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on February 22, 2017.
Hip Mata Traders lift women out of poverty
By Kathleen Nicholson Webber
Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on February 9, 2017.
Creating handbags to educate
By Kathleen Nicholson Webber
Originally posted on PhillyVoice on January 23, 2017.
Class is in session at Rachel Ford’s Made Institute in Old City.
The first cohort of aspiring designers in the 15-course Designer Development Program is sketching, draping and sewing, and this summer they will have new, bigger digs in the Spring Arts District as one of the centerpiece businesses in a new maker community masterminded by developer Craig Grossman.
Grossman, who worked for the late visionary developer Tony Goldman (SoHo, South Beach), is best known for revamping South 13th Street into the current Midtown Village and sees this section of town as a center for the creative class where art, culture and technology will co-exist. His father worked in the New York garment industry and when he met Ford last summer, they clicked.
Ford, a designer and educator, has a vision, too: a new fashion ecosystem in a city that was once a hub for clothing and textile design and manufacturing.
In August, she will move Made Institute into a 3,400-square-foot space at 448 N. 10th St. The 7-story, 50,000-square-foot building formerly housed the Haverford Cycle Company, one of the last industrial buildings in the area. The Spring Arts District spans from 8th to 12th streets, from Noble to Spring Garden streets.
Grossman’s Arts and Crafts Holdings has also signed leases with two tech firms, Azavea and Boco Digital, and the Roy-Pitz brew pub.
“This pocket seemed like an overlooked area with a great history where some of the original makers of Philadelphia worked,” he said.
Before launching Made Institute, founder and owner Rachel Ford designed for Urban Outfitters and was a cutter/draper for the Philadelphia Opera. “This is a new approach to fashion and design schooling,“ she says. ”We want to help designers launch small fashion companies of their own.“
‘SO MUCH ROOM TO GROW HERE’
Made’s space will not only hold classes for aspiring fashion designers but also feature a membership-based “Fashion Co-Working Space,” fully equipped with industrial machinery, cutting tables, dress forms and resources for the growing fashion community in the city. This past August, Ford received a license from the Pennsylvania Department of Education for the program. She has already received more than 50 application requests for the spring session.
She and her staff will train students to become professional sewers, tailors, fashion designers and design entrepreneurs.
“This is a new approach to fashion and design schooling. We want to help designers launch small fashion companies of their own,” Ford explained. “We focus our curriculum on the entrepreneurial experience, while still presenting the fashion landscape as a whole. A focus on sustainability, resourcefulness, and embracing the latest technical methods are what really set us apart from other school experiences.”
Before launching Made, Ford designed for Urban Outfitters and was a cutter/draper for the Philadelphia Opera. Her instructors have master’s degrees or work as fashion designers, she said. Her students come to her with other degree backgrounds, looking to switch careers or save money getting training. The Designer Development Diploma in Fashion Design, which focuses on teaching start-up designers what they need to know to enter the marketplace, can be completed in one year. The full cost of the diploma is $7,845.
The second prong to the Institute is the launch of their Fashion CoWorking Space, which allows members to use their state-of-the-art machinery, tables and start-up know-how to produce small collections. It will be open late night and offer three levels of membership (4 visits monthly, $75; 12 visits monthly, $150; 25 visits monthly, $300) as well as locker storage, access to machinery and 10 percent off classes. Ford received a $10,000 grant from The Merchants Fund to purchase 12 new industrial sewing machines for the making of both knit and woven garments.
“Designers that need a home base can avoid the costs of equipment capital and space, and use our studio whenever they need to,” Ford said. “In order to bring some manufacturing back to Philadelphia, there needs to be an investment made by private businesses like us into the design community at large. Our fashion co-working space is created to be a hub, open to the public at a low cost to promote and facilitate Philadelphia design businesses.
“I hope that the space serves to inspire other aspects of the industry, like textile factories, fashion tech resources, and manufacturers will start to pop up and grow to inspire Philly’s designers to stay in Philadelphia and imagine their design goals,” she continued. “Textiles, fashion tech and manufacturing have so much room to grow here in Philadelphia.”
In August, Made Institute is scheduled to move into the former location of the Haverford Cycle Company, in a section of the 50,000-square-foot building at 448 N. 10th Street near the elevated Reading Viaduct.
STITCHING A PATH TO SUCCESS
It was just four years ago Ford opened her doors in Old City teaching skills to the start-up designer, dressmaker, or home sewer with hands on instruction. She expanded to courses in patternmaking, textiles, tailoring and design studio. She will now add product development to the list of services they offer.
“I am now in a position to create a full circle ecosystem, where designers and makers are treated as equals, working together toward the common goal of making beautiful garments for their customers,” she said.
Ford said the program will have two starts a year. While the curriculum she wrote is heavy on technical sewing, a designer who doesn’t care for sewing can come to the fashion gym and pull from their batch of sewers to complete a small collection.
“Small-batch manufacturing and direct-to-consumer selling is a trend in the industry for smaller designers,” she noted.
Her long-term vision addresses the challenges of domestic clothing manufacturing. For many emerging designers, getting into a factory means reaching certain piece minimums that are just too risky for start-up businesses. The challenge for factories is finding sewers to man machines.
The trade of sewing and patternmaking has been harder and harder to sustain in this country, according to Ford.
“With fast fashion driving price points and constant deliveries, American consumers have a false sense of what a garment should cost,” she explained. “This creates a false bottom line for what designers can spend on manufacturing and in turn, what manufacturers can pay their workers. By educating designers and their customers about how a slower, more sustainable fashion landscape can keep sewing jobs domestic, more and more people will seek out sewing as a viable living. Independent designers could hire their own small team of sewers, and manage production themselves.”
Grossman has high hopes for Ford’s enterprise.
“When I was introduced to Rachel and visited Made Studio, I saw the Wolf forms and the machines and it brought me back to visiting my dad in Midtown Manhattan,” said Grossman of his father, who worked in the childrenswear business his whole life.
“I have been intrigued by makers my whole life,” he said. “What Rachel is doing speaks to me. She is a true maker and feel she can attract other makers to this area.”
By Kathleen Nicholson Webber
Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on December 15, 2016.