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Fashion Factories Find New Ways to Retrofit for Protective Gear Production

Fashion companies continue to retrofit factories and innovate their supply chains to help out with the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) to help the fight against coronavirus.

Outdoor footwear brand Chaco has shifted the focus of its Michigan-based ReChaco factory and mobile factory bus from sandal repairs and product customization to the production of face masks and other critical protective equipment needed by healthcare and other first responders working through the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the state of Michigan issued a stay-at-home order on March 23, Chaco moved quickly to retrofit its factory to produce face masks, and is also exploring specifications for the production of gowns and aprons, similar to actions taken by a coalition of textile and apparel manufacturers last week.

By sourcing patterns from local healthcare systems and collecting raw materials from parent company Wolverine Worldwide, Chaco was able to put the plan in motion in a just a few days.

The ReChaco factory is equipped with industrial sewing machines, ample backstock of materials, and is staffed by an experienced production team. The ReChaco team is led by Lisa Kondrat, director of operations for the ReChaco Factory.

“It’s not in our team’s DNA to stand by when we have the opportunity and resources to take action,” Kondrat said. “We want our skills and machinery to be useful in this crisis.”

Chaco is working with Wolverine Worldwide and local organizations to source fabric and materials for production. The brand plans to share its patterns, sourcing leads and learnings as a resource for other companies and individuals looking to contribute during the pandemic.

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In addition to the ReChaco factory, Chaco will deploy its ReChaco Mobile Repair Factory bus to make supplies. The bus was developed to customize and repair Chaco sandals during the brand’s 2020 Roving Repairs Summer Tour.

Outfitted with sewing machines, hot knives and other equipment for making and mending sandals, the Chaco-trained staff will shift its focus to prototyping and producing protective equipment in the Pacific Northwest. Chaco is partnering with agency partner Field Scout and sister brand Merrell to source fabric and materials for the initiative.

“Our goal here is to inspire quick and creative action from other brands and companies in our space,” Josh Weichhand, marketing director at Chaco, said.

After pivoting its premium bike apparel production to make face masks and shields for first responders and medical providers in western North Carolina, Kitsbow experienced unanticipated engagement from all over the U.S., with demand totaling more than 100,000 units in the first week.

The company’s Asheville-based neighbor, Industry Nine, offered its expertise in large-scale manufacturing and sourcing of raw materials. In less than two days working together, the companies found a solution to yield 10,000 shields per day.

“We never expected to make personal protective equipment (PPE), but there are a lot of things that none of us ever expected about the current state of affairs,” David Billstrom, Kitsbow CEO, said. “We were blown away by the demand and quickly turned to Industry Nine for help. We jumped into this…just putting our heads together and knocking out a better solution and a few design tweaks to make the face shields more manufacturable, in a shorter period of time.”

Industry Nine’s engineering teams have robotics and automation experience and were in a position to help Kitsbow with the manufacturing of parts needed to produce PPE shields and assisting supply efforts in combating the virus outbreak.

Kitsbow noted that the entire Asheville community has come together in this fight with Industry Nine tapping local partners Oweee Products and Watershed in the manufacturing process.

This comes on the heels of efforts by a coalition of apparel and footwear firms, mainly in the Carolinas, to shift their production to make masks and hospital gowns, and a Gerber Technology-led effort to manufacture PPE in the U.S. either by upscaling existing facilities or retrofitting factories that are among its customers.