The Emergency Designer Network – founded by Phoebe English, Bethany Williams, Holly Fulton and Cozette McCreery – is creating personal protective equipment for NHS workers, whose supplies are rapidly running out
The extent to which the outbreak of coronavirus has impacted the fashion industry is unclear – though even by conservative reckonings, the ramifications are already vast. What we do know is that we have entered a new reality: amid a backdrop of store and factory shutdowns – or for younger designers, the cancellation of retailer orders – brands will more than ever need to prove their resilience in order to survive.
But while the industry is in crisis, it has also been among the first responders to the pandemic and the intense pressure it is putting on medical services around the world. From Prada donating ICU beds for hospital wards and LVMH converting its fragrance factories to create hand sanitiser, to young designers simply stitching face masks in their home studios, fashion has mobilised at an impressive speed and scale. “Fashion gets a hard time for being frivolous, but there is nothing frivolous about this scale of commitment to society,” wrote Dazed Media co-founder and CEO Jefferson Hack in a recent open letter on AnOthermag.com. “An entire industry whose future is in question has put the needs of others first – it’s truly remarkable.”
The UK’s designers – particularly the new generation with fledgling businesses – have proved particularly pragmatic. From the outset Phoebe English, who has long been a passionate advocate for change in the industry, led a call-out for designers to donate their time to create face masks for the NHS (in the time since, several other designers and brands have followed suit).
This past weekend, English, alongside designers Bethany Williams, Holly Fulton and Cozette McCreery, announced the launch of the Emergency Designer Network. Their aim: to provide scrubs and personal protective equipment for key workers in British hospitals where supplies are rapidly dwindling. “This entirely volunteer based network aims to galvanise localised UK production capacity and skills to support hospital stocks of key garments such as scrubs,” wrote English on her own Instagram. “These are vital items in the fight against Covid-19.”
“As individual designers, we were being contacted directly by hospitals and trusts looking for urgent assistance to address the impending PPE shortage,” Fulton tells AnOther of how the network began. She was shocked that hospitals were reaching out to designers directly – an initial sign of the extent of the resources crisis within the NHS. “We are a very small operation in the manufacturing sense and to think that at time of crisis, front-line teams were so desperate for solutions they have even worked down to that scale of business was an eye-opener for me.”
“We all felt a collective sense of responsibility to do what we could,” Fulton continues. “The skills are all there, with some assistance we found the correct specification and worked direct with the Royal Free hospital to cut a pattern from their sample and have the prototype signed off. The infrastructure is all there in terms of UK manufacturing, it just needed to be utilised.”
The collective – who had crossed paths within London’s fashion scene through British Fashion Council initiatives or schemes like Fashion East – speak each day digitally, communicating via Zoom and WhatsApp. “Our day seems to kick off around 9am and in some instances run full pelt until 9pm,” says McCreery. “Holly, Bethany and Phoebe are entrenched with making, factories, machinists – many at home having been furloughed – buying fabric, buying components as well as approaching their personal networks about support in the way of funding, sharing or donating. But we are a team ... so another job is keeping each other positive when it all gets maybe a bit too political or generally overwhelming.”
The network has expanded rapidly, now including financial advisers and lawyers – “much needed in navigating the differences between government-approved PPE and hospital-approved PPE and all of the paper trail and disclaimers that involves,” says McCreery – as well as the involvement of Make it British, Fashion Roundtable, Central Saint Martins, the V&A and several other institutions. Yoox Net-a-Porter and Matches Fashion are assisting with logistics, while numerous factories – Fitzmark Cutting Services, Grade House, Abbey England and Black Horse Lane, among others – have all lent their help. Institutions like Sadie Coles and Maureen Paley galleries have also been instrumental in making connections and raising funds.
But perhaps most crucial to the success are the designers themselves, from the network’s founding members to those who have joined along the way – among them Simone Rocha, Lou Dalton, John Smedley, Palmer Harding, Roland Mouret and Teatum Jones. “Collaboration is always important; it’s a way of expanding your skill set and extending your creative vision,” says Fulton. “It’s also crucial to think outside of your own studio and interact, it can be so easy for creatives to become isolated in that sense. For this project, a collective spirit is what sparked it, we can achieve much more together than alone ... We wanted this to be an inclusive project, whether you are making 20 or 2,000, everyone’s input is equally valid and valued.”
The hope is that the network continues to grow. There are several ways to get involved – whether that’s aiding in the creation of PPE or simply donating much-needed funds. “If you are a garment manufacturer you can help us there – we are all volunteers and our small units are working with volunteered staff – ditto if you are a skilled machinist,” says McCreery. “We need skilled ones as our pattern is a level-down from government approved PPE and the make isn’t easy. Or, if you have 150gsm 65 per cent polycotton you can donate that – thank you. Failing that please donate coin. Holly did a costing and one pair of scrubs costs six quid. Six! That’s the price of a couple of coffees or pints.”
“It has been an enlightening experience in many ways, a huge switch from the ordinary day-to-day of normal studio life but a great affirmation of what UK designers and manufacturers can achieve,” says Fulton. “Life is now spent on Zoom and emailing but the reward is securing what we need to produce and knowing that, even if our part is small, it has made a difference.”
To donate to the Emergency Designer Network, please visit its Go Fund Me page. If you have skills or goods that can help or are an organisation in need of these items please contact directly this email: firstname.lastname@example.org.