Los Angeles apparel Industry survives thanks to mask production

Figure: LA declared statewide mandatory mask-wearing order. Courtesy: Christina House / Los Angeles Times

When Orange County supervisors shut down all non-essential businesses on March 17 in response to the Coronavirus outbreak, Abdul Rashid Dadabhoy was forced to halt the production at AST Sportswear, one of the nation’s biggest makers of T-shirts. But he had an immediate solution to the problem.

Figure: LA declared statewide mandatory mask-wearing order. Courtesy: Christina House / Los Angeles Times

Being aware of the critical shortage of face masks, Dadabhoy sat down with his three brothers the next morning and prototyped a cotton version, which workers at the company’s vertically integrated Brea factory churned out 1,200 pieces next day.

The company has produced more than 10 million masks since then. “We kept doing that and we are still doing that,” said Dadabhoy, Chief Operating Officer of the family-owned business which feels proud of its ‘Made in the USA’ label and ability to fill orders faster than its overseas competitors.

Indeed, demand is not expected to decline anytime soon, especially now that Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued an order recently making masks mandatory in most public settings.

Despite the fact that the Coronavirus pandemic has slashed trade and devastated the economy, it’s  provided opportunities to some companies and industries that have maintained supply chains and production close to home — and a prime example is Southern California’s shrunken but still vibrant apparel industry.

While other sectors remained closed for months, Southern California’s apparel manufacturers, which employ thousands, turned on a dime to produce masks and other critically needed personal protective equipment. Although this nimbleness allowed local businesses to compete with low-cost overseas suppliers, it’s exposed employees to possible infection and reignited allegations that low-income, largely immigrant workers were being exploited.

More than 400 apparel companies have participated in L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s LA Protects initiative to produce 5 million masks, which is open to Los Angeles city and county businesses. AST joined a national PPE consortium of large apparel makers that includes Los Angeles Apparel and big outfits such as Hanesbrands.

When the stay-at-home orders were issued, Marta Miller, one of the founders of Lefty Production Company, started serving the medical industry. They were ordering overseas and they just weren’t getting their packages, and so they are running out of masks, running out of bouffant caps, running out of shoe covers,” said Miller, who was able to keep her 35 workers employed.

Meanwhile, big fashion brands already struggling from reduced mall traffic and the growth of Instagram-driven online sales, have hit hard times. Preppy stalwart J. Crew, which didn’t have masks for sale on its main website at the end of last week, filed bankruptcy in May after the debt-laden chain was pushed over the edge by the virus-related closures.

It followed the bankruptcy filing of mall-based fast-fashion retailer Forever 21 in September, at least partially due to online competition.  Los Angeles Apparel, founded by Dev Charney, who was ousted from his former business, American Apparel, after a tenure marred by allegations of sexual and other misconduct, has grown his new business rapidly through an online, direct-to-consumer sales model since its 2016 founding. He also quickly shifted to making masks.

The founder of Los Angeles Apparel, said, “What is really important right now is the assembly of the product, to accelerate or decelerate production. No one is saying that Walmart shouldn’t be free to buy in Bangladesh at five cents on the dollar. I am just saying that is one business stream. There is also a multibillion-dollar stream of rapid reaction urban manufacturing,” he said.

Los Angeles Apparel took advantage of that strength in February to start making masks, hospital gowns and other PPE. The company was so busy that it hired hundreds of workers and opened two newly leased buildings. Charney says the company now employs 2,000 people.

At AST, Dadabhoy said the company can put a product in a buyer’s hand within four to six weeks of executing a purchase order, about twice as fast as an overseas supplier. By contrast, Levi Strauss & Co., which sources from hundreds of factories around the globe and just a handful in the U.S., just this month announced it has face masks for sale.

Los Angeles Apparel has struggled to keep the coronavirus at bay. The company said it was conducting temperature checks, encouraging social distancing and hand washing, and has erected cardboard barriers at individual workstations in its attempt to protect workers. Yet one employee recently died, prompting the company to have workers tested.

“People were very scared at that moment,” said a worker, who sewed masks and asked not to be identified because she immigrated to the United States without documentation. While she tested negative, a woman she was sitting next to tested positive, as did two coworkers she called friends. In all, more than 10 employees tested positive in this month’s outbreak, the company confirmed.

Charney said the company had experienced cases before, and he called the outbreak “alarming,” prompting the company to improve workstation barriers, reemphasize social distancing rules and initiate routine testing of all employees every seven to 10 days.

“We are doing everything we can,” he said. “These are scary times.”    Sheng Lu, an associate professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware said “There is no sign that apparel production is coming back to the U.S. in a sizable way,”