One Year Later: How a Fashion-Industry Leader is Addressing COVID-19 PPE Shortages

February 05, 2021

As the impacts of COVID-19, including lockdowns, a record number of hospitalizations and fatalities, and financial crises, began to take effect around the world in early March 2020, GS alumna Kikka Hanazawa ’00 aptly leveraged her unique position as a fashion-industry leader to help where she could. 

“In the fashion industry we don’t usually have to respond to life or death situations. During my first job, I was told, ‘You can make a mistake, no one is going to die from it,’” said Hanazawa. “This time, we’ve actually been able to save lives and save the lives of people who are protecting and caring for those who are fighting COVID-19.”

What began as Hanazawa’s own research into how to source and produce medical-grade personal protective equipment (PPE) to combat widespread shortages in the United States, became a multidimensional effort through her non-profit organization, Fashion Girls for Humanity (FGFH), which provides humanitarian relief and funding to communities in need. 

Disasters or crisis relief typically means donating food, clothes, and other necessities—there has always been a place for us to function—but this is the first time we’ve been able to find a way to help people directly through fashion."

GS Alumna Kikka Hanazawa

Nearly one year after initially launching open-source resources on the FGFH website for brands moving to convert their facilities to manufacture PPE and for individuals working to create these materials on a smaller scale, the collection of assets available for download has expanded to include various types of masks, protective gowns and suits, surgical caps, and more, and the site has since been accessed over 200,000 times from more than 170 countries.

“COVID-19, unlike any other crisis we’ve faced before, gave us the opportunity to reconsider how we approach disaster relief. The first thing that people did was get on the internet and search. Usually a disaster is regional and we as FGFH are able to provide aid to a more concentrated community, but with COVID-19, I think people knew it was up to them to defend their communities.”

FGFH took it one step further when it came to empowering communities and emerging leaders within them by forging a partnership with Humans from Home, a non-profit established to mobilize the American workforce quarantined at home. The team tapped volunteers and low-income communities in their network to offer and provide Made By Us kits that include the necessary pre-cut gown patterns, instructions for assembly, and materials for anyone with the skills and tools willing to help communities in need. 

From a financial standpoint, last year, FGFH began raising funds for the Gowns for Good Made in America initiative, which supports small businesses in the fashion and garment industries in the United States that pivoted their manufacturing to produce PPE for frontline medical workers. Since the fund was established, FGFH has been able to raise over $200,000 toward relief through both individual donations and collaborations with major brands and companies in the industry. 

People rise to the challenge—rubble, hunger, pandemic, whatever it is that they are facing—and there are always new leaders that emerge from crisis. We want to be there to provide whatever resources they might need because sometimes that’s all it takes."

Kikka Hanazawa

One such collaboration is FGFH’s partnership with The RealReal, an e-commerce site for pre-owned luxury items, where they used their platform to sell face masks made by designers, and 70 percent of all sales were donated directly to relief efforts. In addition, VPL, Hanazawa’s own sustainable, athleisure brand, launched a mask line using vintage textiles and kimono fabric that Hanazawa inherited from her family business in Japan and negotiated a partnership with Gap Athleta to sell these limited edition masks. One hundred percent of net proceeds from the line were donated to FGFH.  

“Disasters or crisis relief typically means donating food, clothes, and other necessities—there has always been a place for us to function—but this is the first time we’ve been able to find a way to help people directly through fashion,” said Hanazawa.

As the effects of the pandemic have endured, PPE shortages have also continued to be an ongoing issue, though they have become less publicized. 

“It’s simply because everything is disposable. If you have more than one million cases, think about how many people take care of each person, a day, and how much PPE they are running through—it’s much faster than manufacturers can produce or organizations can buy.

While continuing to find ways to provide immediate aid, Hanazawa plans to use her expertise in manufacturing and understanding of the PPE supply chain to address more long-term solutions for increasing the amount of PPE that is able to be produced and bringing some of that manufacturing back to the United States for future crises. Funded by some of the donations the organization has received, FGFH began manufacturing PPE in two locations—an all-woman factory in Brooklyn, NY, and expanding to another factory in Washington, DC. The large volume production will soon be be distributed to the network of facilities, including nursing homes, hospitals, and more, that are in need of PPE. 

“Every disaster is different, and how we will be able to help is different. Also, communities, as we know from past disaster relief, are very resilient. People rise to the challenge—rubble, hunger, pandemic, whatever it is that they are facing—and there are always new leaders that emerge from crisis. We want to be there to provide whatever resources they might need because sometimes that’s all it takes,” said Hanazawa.