If We Stop Wearing Masks, What Happens to the People Who Make Them?
Fashion's frontline workers have had to be nimble during the pandemic. Now, a hopeful new normal awaits them.
In the spring of 2020, one of the eeriest displays of the pandemic's impact on New York City were the empty and quiet streets near Times Square. Although the lights were still flashing, what was once an almost sickeningly vibrant area became a ghost town only to be entered by the few people still working there. Among them was a group of garment workers, whose jobs became more impactful than they could have ever imagined.
Around that time, the Ferrera family, whose factory produces clothing for brands like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, pivoted their entire operation into a mask- and hospital gown-making facility when the PPE shortages across the country were dire. Each piece, from the adjustable strap on the ear to the mask itself was a shift for their assembly line. For the workers, it was a scary time to be out in the world, especially in a factory setting, but they answered the call and were able to produce nearly 8 million medical isolation gowns and masks that were shipped around the country.
"It was a very scary time," explains seamstress and patternmaker Chen Li. She has been working with the Ferrera family for 25 years and spoke with InStyle during a factory visit this Sunday alongside Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. "For the Asian people especially, we are also very scared about the violence and the hate against us," she continued, referring to the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across the country. "I didn't want to work, but I knew how important my job was during that time. I like to help people in this nation and I knew we were helping people with our work."
Unlike other factories around the world that pivoted to PPE-making — where there were reports of wage theft and unsanitary conditions — the workers here are unionized through Workers United, and their pay is protected. It's why they were able to get one of President Joe Biden's contracts to make PPE and why they produce other loudly American garments like military uniforms and outfits for the Olympic team.
"This factory is an example of excellence. It's inspiring to see so many creative entrepreneurs working together to make beautiful garments and useful garments for our hospital workers, athletes, and military," Senator Gillibrand tells InStyle following her tour.
As she walked through the bustling factory, workers were making black and green masks. Some were cutting patterns, while others sewed, listening to music in their headphones to tune out the people walking by in suits. When the senator stopped by sewing stations, some of the workers proudly shared that they are mothers putting their children through school. One woman, named Jenny, boasted about making a pair of pants for Janelle Monáe.
"It really matters that these products are made in the United States and specifically in New York," Gillibrand explained. "Investing in long-term contracts that allow them to employ more workers to create more stability and sustainability is where we should be focusing our efforts."
This is important because over the last two decades, New York City's once-bustling garment district shrunk to almost a third of its size, losing thousands of employees and brands along the way. As many fashion brands started looking for cheaper and faster solutions, the manufacturers had a hard time incentivizing them to stay and closed as a result. It's been a devastating blow to the culture in New York, which has prided itself on being a fashion hub for a century but has lost so much of what made that true. This year, though, there is a renewed sense of purpose for the women at the Ferrera factory that's being punctuated by something a little more hopeful.
As the country begins loosening the mask mandates for vaccinated people, starting next week some of the workers will begin making Team USA's 2021 Olympics uniforms designed by Ralph Lauren. At the same time that this is a symbolic shift toward life post-pandemic for a factory whose sole focus has been on garments to get us through a global health crisis, it's a real one too. The Ferreras say that now that everyone has been vaccinated, they will operate at a higher capacity, meaning more workers getting paid, so they can do both the Olympic uniforms and PPE.
Chen Li, whose machine was on the other side of the factory floor away from the busy mask making, is responsible for sewing the top-secret samples for the athletes before the factory makes the official shift.
"Well, it's so exciting, even though it's harder work. I could make the masks with my eyes closed now," she explains with a laugh. As we talk, she's wearing a pink long-sleeve T-shirt by Ralph Lauren that was made right in the factory where she works. She said she's been sewing Ralph Lauren clothing for decades and she takes a lot of pride in that. Chen then explained something that often gets lost in conversations about fashion, and in the lack of conversation about how those millions of masks ended up in our hands seemingly overnight.
Garment work is skilled, often difficult work, and the mostly women who do it should be paid as such. "New patterns are hard to make in the beginning, no matter [what]; they take a lot of thinking and work. We like it, but you really just have to use a lot of your brain," Chen says, adding, finally: "We are ready though."
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