How Christian Siriano turned his fashion house into a mask factory

On the morning of March 20, 34-year-old fashion designer Christian Siriano sat in the living room of his country home in Danbury, Connecticut, watching the must-see TV of the moment: Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefings, the governor of New York, about the state’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic. A reporter asked Cuomo if he wanted President Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act, which would allow him to force companies in other industries to start making desperately needed medical supplies, including ventilators and PPE, or personal protective equipment, such as masks and goggles. “Look, if I had a New York State defense production law, I would use it,” Cuomo replied, adding, “If you make clothes, figure out if you can make masks. I I’ll fund it.

Designer Christian Siriano found he was able to help with the shortage of face masks.Photograph courtesy of Christian Siriano

Siriano, a former “Project Runway” winner who dressed Michelle Obama and Taylor Swift, found he was in a position to help. He had closed his workshop a week earlier, as the epidemic in New York accelerated. But his team of eight sewers had brought their machines with them. Siriano intended to keep them busy — and pay for them — with customer orders for wedding dresses and dresses for fall galas. At noon he tweeted to Governor: “If @NYGovCuomo says we need masks, my team will help make some. I have a full sewing team always on staff working from home who can help. Within an hour, a representative from Cuomo’s office had slipped into Siriano’s direct messages and accepted his offer.

The governor’s office sent Siriano a stock model. The mask was not medical-grade N-95, which requires special materials, such as non-woven polypropylene, to filter out microscopic particles. It was a fabric surgical mask, with three ply, elastic ear bands, and a small strip of metal that could be molded to fit around the nose. Siriano had suitable polyblend fabric in his workshop, which he delivered to the house from every sewer. For two days, the team worked remotely. (Siriano, who doesn’t have a sewing machine in Connecticut, served as something of a virtual Rosie the Riveter.) But, with each seamstress working alone, they could only make about 50 masks a day. So Siriano asked Cuomo’s office for permission to reopen his studio as an “essential” business. He returned to town and gathered the team together under one roof (six feet apart, of course), where they could form an assembly line. In the first week, they produced nearly two thousand masks. The first box they shipped went straight to the new Javits Center field hospital.

On March 25, when mask-making was in full swing, Siriano took me on a FaceTime tour of his studio, which occupies a pre-war Beaux-Arts townhouse on Fifty-fourth and Fifth Streets. Ave. It sits on what, during New York’s Golden Age, was the site of St. Luke’s Hospital, and in the 1940s served as the office for the Victory Clothing Collection for Overseas Relief, a service which collected warm clothes from civilians to send to soldiers in need. “At some point, I’m sure similar things were done here,” he said.

A slender pixie with a shiny tassel cap of dark hair and chunky glasses, Siriano wore a tight black T-shirt and skinny black jeans. In a hallway on the third floor, he slipped past a shelf of dozens of sequined ballgowns. He walked into a bright, airy room full of white sewing tables that looked a lot like a set from “Project Runway,” and zoomed in on a half-finished wedding dress, with a kelly green bodice and cascading skirt of black and – white tulle. He was sitting on a mannequin next to a table where a woman was tying an elastic cord to the back of one mask after another.

Video courtesy of Christian Siriano

Siriano stressed that staff participation in the effort was completely voluntary. The first day back at the office, after he had explained the plan via a collective text, about twenty people showed up to help him: cutters, sewers, designers, even the doorman of the building. Now, every day, about ten people show up for work. Every morning, private cars transport them from their homes to the townhouse. A caterer provides lunch so no one has to leave the office and risk exposure. Twice a day, every day, employees stop by for a temperature check. US officials have advised the public against wearing masks for their own protection against the coronavirus, in part because of the severe shortage of supplies needed by healthcare workers. But studies suggest they are a worthwhile precaution. While working at its stations, each member of staff wears a House of Siriano mask.

Normally, Siriano is known as the rare designer with an inclusive vision of haute couture; When comedian Leslie Jones complained on Twitter in 2016 that no designer would outfit her for the “Ghostbusters” premiere, Siriano answered the call in a regal scarlet dress. He said he now sees making masks as an extension of his mission, which is to use his resources to help those in need, even though the need is now much more urgent than, say, an appearance on the Red carpet.

“Fashion is amazing. And it’s beautiful,” he said. “And I think we’re changing a lot of people’s lives. But it’s a luxury. side, like, our ten thousand dollar dresses, and they just go around the corner. It was baffling, he said, that a company like his was even able to step in. How? ‘Or’ What not enough product? How was there no preparation at all? In a way, it feels good to have something to do. On the other hand, we receive e-mails every day from hospitals saying, “We have nothing. It’s a mess. It’s horrible.”

During his first week of quarantine, Siriano had spent his free time working on a series of paintings. Each showed a female figure done in the sparse, flowing mid-century style vogue illustrator René Bouët-Willaumez, wearing a floaty dress and matching face mask. On Instagram, Siriano posted a photo of himself posing with three of the paintings. “Guess that’s what my collections will be for a while now,” he wrote in the caption. “A tulle dress and a mask to complete the look.”

Siriano sold the paints and funneled the proceeds into his mask operation – all of the work he’s done so far has been pro bono. In recent days, companies far larger than his own have volunteered to start producing PPE On Monday, Brooks Brothers announced that it would use its menswear factories to make one hundred and fifty thousand masks a day. Siriano says he’ll maintain his new operation as long as his supplies are needed, but he won’t mind when his staff can start embellishing prom dresses again. “I mean, my sewers are sewing sewers,” he said. “Now they make masks, which is great. But they don’t really use their talents.


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