In the past month and a half, fashion designer Christian Siriano has transformed his Manhattan atelier into a mask factory to provide much-needed protection to New York’s frontline workers.
During a TIME 100 Talks discussion on Friday, Siriano, a former Project Runway winner who’s made his name in the fashion industry and beyond for his commitment to inclusivity, told TIME senior editor Haley Sweetland Edwards how this effort began with a tweet to Governor Andrew Cuomo, after seeing the rapid spread of COVID-19.
“The other day we almost hit 30,000 [masks] and I just can’t believe that we’re a mask factory — it’s like wild to think about how that’s what we do everyday when we go to the office,” he says. “I didn’t think it would turn into what it turned into. I’m very proud of what we’ve done, but it’s so crazy that people needed masks so much and they still do; we still get requests every single day.”
Since they’ve pivoted from crafting gowns to making masks, Siriano and his team of 10 full-time seamstresses make about 2,000 masks daily, which are all donated to emergency and frontline health care workers. Since the masks are given away, not sold, Siriano has been funding the operation through donations from friends, family and brand supporters, which has enabled him to keep his workers employed. He’s also been selling his original sketches and paintings on his website to help offset the mask-making costs.
While Siriano sometimes misses working on the glamorous looks that’s made him a favorite with the likes of Michelle Obama and Billy Porter, he says that he sees the current situation inspiring a shift for fashion design both now and in the future.
“Let me tell you, making masks is not very glamorous, it’s not very pretty — but I will say, I see my business, at least for the next 6 months or so, being in some type of protective manufacturing in some way, we’ve kind of fully pivoted into that,” he says. “I don’t think that fashion will mean the same thing after this…I mean, we still need fantasy and dreams and those things to escape, but I think it will just be different. It will need to be more meaningful and whatever that is, I’m not sure yet, but it’s definitely how I’m designing now, I’m thinking about it.”
Siriano also believes masks will become a part of dressing up, a new (and in these times, necessary) accessory. In his free time of late, he’s made some couture masks embellished with pearls and crystals that have been a hit on social media.
“I think it’s a really cool way of expressing yourself and it’s such a cheap, easy way to do it, which is fun too,” he says. “I’ve been making a few kinds of couture masks for fun, for myself, and we’ve had so many people ask for them. It’s sort of a new form of jewelry, which is sort of cool.”
Siriano also contends that even though many are staying at home and social distancing, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get your fashion fix; in fact, he contends that it could be the best time to experiment with a new look.
“I think people should be at home and dress up if [they] want to dress up,” he says. “If it makes you feel good and you feel like it, who cares? And also, you’re at home, you can try anything and no one’s judging you — you could wear a tutu if you want, it’s the best time to try.”
This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields sharing their ideas for navigating the pandemic. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.