How Aussie fashion brands are shifting gears to supply hospitals

David and Sharon Hamilton (Source: fellahamilton.com)

One of the few upsides of the current crisis has been seeing the outpouring of support for those whose health and livelihoods have been affected by COVID-19.

Supermarkets have hired tens of thousands of people who lost their jobs, restaurants have offered free food to healthcare workers and locally made fashion brands have started investigating ways to fix the shortage of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment (PPE) in hospitals. 

Sharon and David Hamilton, who run the iconic women’s fashion brand Fella Hamilton, have already reserved a significant amount of fabric and produced a number of samples of isolation gowns, masks and scrubs, which they have listed on their website and are currently presenting to hospitals.

They say they could manufacture thousands of units in their facility in Moorabbin, Victoria, where they were still making about half of their ranges locally until the coronavirus struck.

“We put everything on hold, we told the cutting room we didn’t know if there would be any work, because we didn’t know the quantities [to order] for summer,” Sharon, the brand’s CEO, told Inside Retail. 

Around the time the Hamiltons made the decision to temporarily close stores at the end of March, they were approached by some friends in the medical field who suggested they could help with Australia’s dwindling supply of PPE. 

“There’s a massive shortage of scrubs and gowns,” Sharon said. “They’re generally made in China, but there are still freight issues with goods coming out of China, and there’s an eight to nine week delay.” 

The Hamiltons turned to their local fabric suppliers and secured a significant amount of material to make isolation gowns, masks and scrubs with input from 10 doctors on fit and features, so they can be removed without contamination. 

“We’ve learned a lot about how doctors work,” Sharon said. 

Approval required

However, the items the Hamiltons are making are not currently included on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG), a requirement for PPE that’s going to be used in a hospital or clinical setting

Gowns, scrubs and masks are considered medical devices, and must be manufactured under certain conditions, to ensure they’re sterile, for instance, and made out of certain materials.

The fluid-resistant material preferred for isolation gowns is not readily available in Australia, so the Hamiltons have used a poly-cotton blend. This is actually acceptable, according to the Therapeutic Goods Administrations (TGA), as long as the hospitals that buy the gowns have suitable laundry facilities to reprocess them after use.

The Hamiltons are in talks with several hospitals in Melbourne and are hoping to supply PPE to some dedicated as COVID-19 hubs. This is where their absence from the ARTG could be a sticking point.

“If we can help them get stock quickly, it’s almost like we’re saving lives. They need this stuff,” David, Fella Hamilton’s director, said. 

Nobody Denim and Cue Clothing have run into similar issues as the Hamiltons. As some of the biggest apparel manufacturers left in Australia, they have the ability to churn out thousands of units of PPE a week, but they haven’t pulled the trigger because it’s still not clear whether the products could be used in COVID-19 hospitals.

“It’s a waiting game,” John Condilis, co-founder of Nobody Denim, told Inside Retail. “We presented everything that we could, we just have to be patient now.” 

Nobody Denim’s factory in Melbourne (Source: nobodydenim.com)

Big industry

Nobody Denim is planning to do a small run of scrubs at its 2500sqm factory in Melbourne next week, so it has all the kinks worked out in the event that ARTG approval comes through. 

“It’s not just a matter of flicking the switch,” Condilis said. “We need to start training ourselves and get a full understanding of what we can do next to improve the material and the design.”

Condilis doesn’t just see this as a short-term venture, he believes it could be the start of a new era for Nobody Denim, working with governments, universities and research institutions to develop innovative materials and products for the health sector. 

“It’s a big, big industry,” he said.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. A new online marketplace is set to launch next week with the aim of making it easier for hospitals to purchase PPE from a wider range of manufacturers. 

“The old method of procurement was through government websites…it’s a different world now,” Phil Leahy, founder of Retail Global and creator of the online marketplace, told Inside Retail

The marketplace will be based on the Marketplacer platform, which Myer, PetStock and other major retailers use, and allow brands like Fella Hamilton, Cue and Nobody Denim to list PPE products for sale. 

Sellers won’t be required to have ARTG approval to list products on the marketplace, but users will be able to filter products based on their various certifications. The team is also working out how to ensure hospitals and medical professionals get first dibs on products before the general public.

“It’s better to have some sort of protective gear than not,” Leahy said. 

If you’re interested in manufacturing PPE, the Australian Fashion Council has compiled an excellent resource for how to get started.

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