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Fashion and PPE

It goes without saying that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is not a luxury item. In this current crisis it should be readily available, but unfortunately, so far, that hasn’t always been the case. It’s a depressing fact that our country has a seen a woeful lack of PPE, not just for those working in hospitals but in key worker roles across the spectrum, including care homes, delivery drivers and postal workers.

By contrast to those vital key jobs, an industry that we often call luxury, British fashion, is stepping up to help, diverting their talents away from fashionable clothes and putting them towards creating vital PPE. Fashion designer Richard Quinn has been creating floral-printed non-surgical scrubs, firstly, for staff at the hospital he was born at, Lewisham Hospital, and now for doctors and nurses across the UK.

#VisorArmy, started by ICU consultant Deborah Braham, has seen a number of milliners take their skillset and use it to save lives, producing face protection for frontline staff. The Emergency Designer Network has recruited an army of creators, including Simone Rocha and Roland Mouret, to make ‘hospital, but not Government-approved, garments for support staff and carers.’ But this hasn’t been without its troubles.

The government has come into increasing criticism for its slow response in enlisting British textile firms to help with the shortages in PPE, and have been accused of putting too much emphasis on brand names that play out well in the public; such as Burberry; compared to lesser well-known textile specialists. Designer Phoebe English had one such experience when she received few answers from emails sent to government bodies about how to put skilled textile workers to use. But she wasn’t deterred. Putting a note out on social media asking “Can we make masks for you?” a mixture of textile and fashion enthusiasts rallied to her call.

Of the bigger fashion names, Barbour has been producing and delivering disposable gowns and medical scrubs from its South Shields factory to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne. Whilst Burberry has donated more than 100,000 pieces of PPE to the NHS, along with funding research into a single-dose vaccine developed by the University of Oxford.

The fashion industry is also not one to miss out on a trend. With the National Health Service now deeply entrenched in the nation’s consciousness, it’s become a coveted name in fashion. London streetwear brand, Palace launched a sell-out online collection entitled ‘NHS Tri to Help’, replacing their signature triangle logo with the words, ‘National Health Service’. Profits are going to NHS Charities Together. Sports Banger have also relaunched their famous 2015 NHS Nike swoosh t-shirts, and raising more than £100,000, they are delivering fresh juices and healthy food to ICU teams at five London hospitals.

One of the most symbolic images of this pandemic has been the rainbow, a symbol of hope and a way to show solidarity to all those suffering and working hard to protect us. Shopping app Kindred has created a “thank you” t-shirt featuring the rainbow, whilst Oliver Bonas is selling a glitter rainbow t-shirt to show their appreciation. Proceeds from both designs are going to charity.

And without appearing to trivialise the need for PPE, face-masks may soon become the next fashion must-have accessory. Supermodel Naomi Campbell has been in the news for her use of PPE long before this crisis began, wearing a face-mask on flights. Since the start of the pandemic, the renowned germaphobe has been photographed wearing a full hazmat suit to the airport. Whilst the latter is impractical for most, her use of a face-mask is likely to be required if some form of normality is to resume in the UK. In the last quarter, searches for face masks have increased by 496% according to the Lyst Index. Like make-up and hair styling, the face-mask will be the first thing that people see. So it is little wonder that people will be looking for alternative, fashionable designs that identify them as responsible citizens.

Unfortunately, some brands appear only to be looking to profit from this crisis. A significant online fast fashion brand launched their £5 fabric masks with slogans such as, “If you can read this, you’re too close” and “Eat, sleep, isolate, repeat”, but following a backlash they were quickly withdrawn. However, other fashion brands are showing their compassion. Christopher Kane offered to post unused fabric and a pattern to anyone who asked, and, although the fabric may now have run out, the pattern is still available to download. London fashion talent, Edeline Lee, has set up a non-profit mask project. Each purchase includes three masks, designed to fit to each customer’s face using bendable wire, and it also covers the cost of creating a further 80 masks to send to the frontline.

Stories like these highlight the kindness that exists in all of us. But critics who usually view the fashion industry as trivial are revising their viewpoint and acknowledging this more positive and compassionate side to the industry. In a time of global need, it is also demonstrating how important local manufacturing can be. Our dependence on cheap foreign imports has become obscenely obvious, but the skills we, as a country and as an industry, are showcasing are something to be proud of. As we are likely to head into a recession resulting from this pandemic, retaining and creating jobs here at home in the UK will become even more important. And so a future where home-grown talent and UK-based manufacturing can play a key role within our fashion industry is a positive step in creating a more sustainable fashion future.

About Our Author: Katie Calvert's background is in fashion and textiles with a first class honours degree in Fashion Communication and Promotion and experience in trend, PR and events. She decided to take the plunge back into education in 2015 to complete a Master of Arts in Multimedia Journalism. Using these newfound skills and her love of fashion and culture, Katie has been freelance writing for over a year.

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