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Fashion designers turn to making face masks amid shortages

States struggle with medical supply shortages
As coronavirus preparations ramp up, U.S. still faces medical shortage 04:49

A fashion designer known for his "fantasy" evening gowns and cocktail dresses is starting to make a starkly different accessory: face masks. 

Former "Project Runway" winner Christian Siriano is among the designers and clothing makers across the U.S. who are pivoting from producing haute couture and other clothing to making personal protective equipment. He is ramping up production amid nationwide shortages of masks and other medical supplies as patients with coronavirus begin to swamp America's hospital systems. 

Siriano — who is based in New York City, now facing the largest virus outbreak in the U.S. — on Friday tweeted that he would redeploy his sewing staff to produce masks after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pleaded for local businesses to help churn out more surgical masks, gowns and gloves.

The designer said his team is fine-tuning its manufacturing process and will seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration before he starts manufacturing masks in earnest. Siriano declined to be interviewed by CBS MoneyWatch in order to "focus on the task at hand," a company spokesperson said. 

Other local designers are also looking to lend a hand. Pamela Barsky, who makes quirky canvas bags and pouches, said on Twitter that her small factory in Manhattan's trendy East Village neighborhood can make about 500 masks per day.

Hospital sews makeshift masks to combat shortage 01:44

In California, American Apparel founder and former CEO Dov Charney said his new company, called Los Angeles Apparel, has been making face masks for its workers for more than a month.

"Our staff use masks not just for coronavirus but for other applications, so five to six weeks ago, when we couldn't get a hold of surgical masks, we started making our own," Charney told CBS MoneyWatch. 

The company is now producing hundreds of thousands of masks per week and is selling 3-packs of washable cotton face masks with straps for $30 online. He said he also has donated more than 10,000 masks to hospitals in California, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Washington.  

"The mask is made of a thick cotton French terry — like a thick sweatshirt but unbrushed," he said. "I'm wearing one as we speak," he said of the mask, adding that Los Angeles Apparel is also designing a surgical gown. 

Los Angeles Apparel is selling a 3-pack of cotton face masks for $30 on its website.  Los Angeles Apparel

Luxury fashion houses Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent will also start manufacturing surgical masks for their own staffs pending regulatory approval, parent company Kering said in a statement on its website. 

Surgical masks are loose-fitting and typically disposable devices that protect the wearer from large-particle droplets or splashes that can contain viruses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They do not, however, block or filter the tiny particles that can be transmitted through coughs or sneezes. 

So-called N95 respirators, which are recommended for health care workers, block at least 95% of small particles and provide more filtration than face masks. Designers are not making N95 equivalents or masks that provide medical-grade protection. 

Still, masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment is in such short supply that federal officials have advised hospital workers to use surgical masks when treating patients who might have the coronavirus in the absence of N95 masks. The FDA also issued a letter to health care providers earlier this month urging them to conserve supplies by re-using masks and using them past their expiration dates in non-surgical settings. 

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