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US Fashion Firms See PPE as a Permanent Fixture Versus Pandemic Fad

They answered the call at the onset of the country’s coronavirus virus, and now the U.S. apparel and textile industry just might have found a new, profitable product category.

When the coronavirus started to spread like wildfire throughout the U.S. earlier this year, the domestic textile and apparel industry jumped into action and quickly converted production lines and factories into making personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and hospital gowns that were in short supply. That shift could be here to stay.

Making PPE production permanent

While apparel retailers and brands are anxious to get back into producing their core lines, that will take time to slowly come back online, as they must first contend with excess inventory and lagging consumer demand. But now, many executives feel wearing face masks will become a commonplace fixture in the American wardrobe, at least until researchers develop a vaccine or cure, the most proven and successful methods of limiting the spread of infectious disease. Executives also contend that the country won’t want to be caught short of PPE like hospital gowns again, forced to rely on imported products.

Many companies have already said they will be committing production to PPE lines for the foreseeable future, especially given the uncertainty of when their core businesses will return to normal.

Cone Denim is transitioning a portion of its loom capacity to produce Maxima medical fabrics for its sister division, Burlington. Burlington’s Maxima medical fabrics are engineered with specific yarns and constructions to provide high levels of protection, durability and comfort.

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A key advantage of Burlington fabrics is that they are reusable, which provides even greater assurance of being available when critical PPE is needed the most, and promotes a more responsible, sustainable solution for the long term.

“Being a part of the larger Elevate Textiles family has opened many opportunities for Elevate’s brands, including Cone, Burlington and American & Efird, to collaborate and innovate to better serve apparel brands and others within the textile and apparel industry who are stepping up to produce lifesaving PPE,” Steve Maggard, president of Cone Denim, said. “The Cone and Burlington technical teams have been working closely to quickly transition a portion of looms in our Cone Denim Yecapixtla operation in Mexico to produce Burlington medical fabrics. Production is set to ramp up in June…At the same time, we are available to service our denim customers as retail starts to re-open and global demand for denim increases.”

Hanesbrands has launched two non-medical-grade face mask styles, Cool Comfort and Signature Stretch-to-Fit, the company noted in its Twitter account. The face coverings are will be available soon at leading retail stores, the company said. In addition, the company is supplying the U.S. government with more than 320 million reusable cloth face coverings and more than 20 million reusable long-sleeve medical gowns.

The company expects to create an ongoing product line of basic personal protective garments to serve the consumer, commercial and governmental markets. Sales in 2020 are expected to be more than $300 million and the company believes the business has the potential to expand further in future years.

“We believe this has the potential to be a substantial contributor of incremental profit and cash flow over the next several years,” CEO Gerald Evans told financial analysts on a conference call. “Our ability to quickly shift our manufacturing operations to produce new products underscores the competitive advantages of owning our manufacturing network that is balanced across hemispheres.”

Evans said there is an expectation that the COVID-19 pandemic will result in more widespread mask usage by consumers and businesses globally. He said the company has had an influx of inquiries “across a number of geographies from governments, retailers, large corporations and individual consumers.” Based on that interest, as well as the anticipated change in consumer behavior around the world, he said the company believes “our mask and protective garment business could be a sizable revenue opportunity with growth potential over the next several years.”

In mid-April, Gildan Activewear, in collaboration with various partners, began to manufacture PPE to help address the shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The company is currently sewing face masks for a cooperative consortium of apparel and textile companies supplying non-medical face masks to the health care sector. It is also producing non-medical face masks and isolation gowns for various retailers to be distributed to health care organizations.

Gildan said it plans to produce more than 150 million masks and gowns to service the consortium and retailers under this effort.

US Apparel, Textile Firms Make PPE
Hanes has introduced two non-medical-grade styles, Cool Comfort and Signature Stretch-to-Fit.

Building a new core

Sherry Wood, director of merchandising of Long Beach, Calif.-based Texollini, which introduced a consumer face mask line in April, said the pandemic has changed the thinking of both the public and industry.

“Before, we would never share our sources and supply-chain manufacturers,” Wood said. “Now, because of the pandemic, people in the industry all the across the U.S. have been connecting and contacting each other through various platforms, organizations and associations. Some had no idea that such people and manufacturers still existed in the U.S. I believe it has been a real eye-opening experience for most of us.”

Many have discovered that the United States cannot support its own people and medical industry with essential supplies. “It really highlighted our dependency on Asia and other nations to get the supplies needed,” Wood added.

“The reality is this virus is going to be around for a long time and once we finally get ourselves out of this pandemic, there will be another one right around the corner,” she said. “This is our new reality and if we do not better prepare ourselves now for the future, we will see the same repeat of what we experienced these past few months. At Texollini, we do work with the medical industry and they have in the past come to us with innovative ideas on how to better make medical products.”

“I believe there is a new generation of leaders that will push thru these new ideas that will soon be the norm,” Wood added. “Therefore, PPE products are more valued now than ever before. This is our opportunity to improve them and push this industry forward with technology and other new innovative ways to be ahead of the game.”

Kim Glas, CEO of the National Council of Textile Organizations, said the industry believes the virus and consumer mindset are “something that we are going to feel the long term,” And the industry, she added, wants to sustain PPE manufacturing as a permanent part of its prowess and portfolio.

“They felt this call to action by the U.S. government to help serve,” Glas said, describing the sector as “an industry literally overnight retooled to making masks or making gowns, or other personal protective equipment items.” “You know how fantastic that is? It is about American ingenuity and drive, and innovation for an industry that never made some of these products.”

To be sure, innovation germinated many of the nation’s successes in PPE. Under Armour, for one, introduced the UA Sportsmask, a reusable, water-resistant performance face mask designed for maximum breathability. The mask functions to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets by the wearer.

The seeds for the UA Sportsmask were planted in mid-March when Under Armour began manufacturing face masks designed by its innovation team and distributing millions of units of PPE to health care and community organizations to help fight the spread of COVID-19. During this process, Under Armour founder Kevin Plank recognized a need for performance solutions that would support athletes navigating the pandemic climate. He called on the innovation team in Baltimore, equipped with their recent mask-making experience, to join him in finding a way forward, and fast.