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How Ralph Lauren jumped into the coronavirus fight to make medical masks and gowns

April 7, 2020, 7:30 PM UTC

While lead times for making new Ralph Lauren clothes and accessories are typically measured in months, this week two new looks for the fashion company went into production at breakneck speed: protective masks and isolation gowns for medical workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

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The New York fashion house, whose North American and European stores are closed indefinitely, announced on March 27 it would work with suppliers to make 250,000 masks and 25,000 isolation gowns. In so doing, Ralph Lauren joined the ranks of clothiers from Brooks Brothers and Canada Goose to Jockey and Fanatics in a wartime-like mass effort to alleviate acute shortages of these essential items.

Making medical-grade protective wear, of course, is not the same as making a V-neck sweater or a cashmere shawl cardigan. So Ralph Lauren, whose top executives were moved to act by the U.S. declaration of a national emergency on March 13, had to first understand the specifications required by the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control before leaping into the production of personal protective equipment.

“We do have a supply chain, though it’s built mainly for apparel and accessories. We didn’t know what it takes to produce PPEs,” Halide Alagöz, Ralph Lauren’s chief supply chain and sustainability officer, tells Fortune.

The issues to understand included how resistant a surgical gown needs to be in relation to the risk of contamination, and what materials that entails. As for masks, the considerations were similar: What are the specific requirements for the N95 mask (which derives its name from the percentage of particles 0.3 microns or larger in the air, including the new coronavirus, that it filters out) for medical professionals treating COVID-19 patients, compared with those of a loose, surgical mask used under other circumstances.

Ralph Lauren received guidance from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the American Apparel & Footwear Association throughout the process. Once Ralph Lauren knew what the government’s specs were, it sent out feelers to its manufacturing partners to see who had what capabilities, including having machines able to make masks.

One of Ralph Lauren longest-standing suppliers, a New York company called Ferrara Manufacturing, quickly stepped up. Ferrara said it was ready to carry out the deep cleaning of its facility required by the FDA, pay workers, set up the workspaces and adjust its machinery. (Some of Ralph Lauren’s $10 million grant for COVID-19 relief has gone to this effort.)

Ferrara Manufacturing of New York is producing face masks for medical workers on behalf of its client, Ralph Lauren.

And so Ferrara, which since 1990 has made high-end women’s wear for Ralph Lauren as well as its Olympic opening and closing ceremony clothing for U.S. athletes, within days retooled itself as a factory for hospital gowns, which it started making last Thursday, and fabric face masks, which rolled out this past weekend. (Ferrara is also selling the masks to the public for $25 apiece.) The masks can be washed up to a couple of dozen times, making them reusable.

Ralph Lauren is also working with a few other domestic partners, such as Hanes, which donated some of the materials being used. Still, given how much PPE production has moved overseas over the years, and the erosion of America’s garment manufacturing capabilities, it became clear to Alagöz that she’d have to cast a wider net. After all, the company needed to meet volume goals and move quickly, given the pressing need for the items.

The U.S.-made masks by Ralph Lauren are for general protection and not for personnel treating patients or for doctors in an operating room. But Ralph Lauren tapped an Asian partner to bring in the heavier-duty KN95 masks, a substitute for N95s the CDC has deemed acceptable. (The FDA issued an emergency use authorization for the importation of KN95 masks last week to help with the U.S. shortage.)

“We realized we need to be quicker in providing the units required,” says Alagöz.

Once these items are ready to be shipped in the coming days, they will be sent to New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina and distributed to hospitals via those states’ governments, since Ralph Lauren has a large number of employees in those states.

Ralph Lauren has not committed to producing more masks and gowns just yet. Like other fashion companies, it is struggling to deal with the fallout of having stores closed indefinitely. The company, which brought in sales of $6.3 billion last fiscal year, said on Monday that it will furlough employees later in April. Top executives, including CEO Patrice Louvet, have taken major, temporary pay cuts.

Still, the company wants to contribute as much as it can. “We felt an urgent need to be part of the solution to provide some support and relief,” Alagöz says.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

—New York City prepares to use parks as temporary burial sites
—Millions won’t be able to pay their bills this month. What financial experts advise
—What small businesses applying to the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program need to know
—What’s going to happen to your frequent-flier status and miles
The Supreme Court faces pressure to work online as its case backlog grows
—JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon lays out a future worse than 2008 in his annual letter
—Why Allstate and other auto insurers are sending their customers refunds
—PODCAST: COVID-19 might have upended the concept of the best companies of the year
—VIDEO: 401(k) withdrawal penalties waived for anyone hurt by COVID-19

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