Like many businesses, the fashion industry has ground to a halt during the coronavirus crisis. As some brands pivot towards making the face masks, gowns and scrubs much needed by healthcare workers, three London-based fashion designers have set up the Emergency Designer Network (EDN), seeking to “galvanise local level production” and supplement stocks, starting with scrubs.
“The way I saw it, in order to do their jobs safely, what key workers needed was clothes – and clothes is what we do,” explains Phoebe English, who teamed up with fellow designers Holly Fulton and Bethany Williams to form the network. The trio have been working to get the project up and running since the UK lockdown began, communicating largely via Zoom, and launched the EDN website on Thursday – the same day that the government was criticised for being slow to enlist the help of British textile firms, focusing instead on high-profile names such as Burberry.
“As a small designer, I was receiving enquiries direct from hospitals about supplying specific garments or assisting in their manufacture,” says Fulton, who is usually known for creating clothes with bold graphic prints. “It transpired that Phoebe and Bethany had similarly been approached with these requests. A lot of [designers] are keen to do something but it’s hard to know where to start, where to get the correct fabric. We took the initiative to work as a team, utilising our links with the Fashion Roundtable and Make it British.”
The group has also enlisted the help of “connector” Cozette McCreery, who set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for raw materials, such as hospital-approved fabric. They began working with 10 volunteer manufacturers and designers – a number which had now grown to about 70 following an “incredible” response.
“It’s humbling how keen people are to get involved and how generous they are with their time,” says Fulton. “It’s been a truly collective effort – a lot of individual makers as well as some larger setups. [Knitwear brand] John Smedley, for example, are going to be producing under our umbrella, creating scrubs for hospitals in London as well as some local to them in Derbyshire. We want to assist on a nationwide level.”
The team is currently focusing solely on scrubs, since “they are the best match for the skills and equipment that we have access to,” says English, who is known for her eco-conscious approach to design. “We are running our first batch of scrubs this week, looking to produce 400 sets of scrubs in Wales and 340 in London,” adds Williams, whose work also had a sustainability focus, with collections usually made entirely from recycled and organic materials.
The designers put together a pattern that meant garments could be constructed quickly – no non-essential features, such as pockets – which was then signed off by the Royal Free Hospital in London, set to be one of the first hospitals to receive support from the Network. However, the EDN are keen to stress that their garments are not government approved and should not be used in place of government PPE. Rather, they seek to offer a lower level protection, “allowing government backed PPE to go where it is so desperately needed”.
The team can now start putting the technical packs together, which will be sent out to makers nationwide on Monday, with support from online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter.
“We want it to be very inclusive,” says Fulton. “If an individual can make 20 units that’s just as valid to us as someone who can make 2000 pieces. The creative industries have been hit hard by the current climate but it’s been a positive message for designers and their teams.”
While their priority is to respond to the immediate crisis, the designers hope that the formation of groups such as the EDN will also spark a more permanent shift within the fashion industry.
“I hope that in the future our fashion industry will become a bit more UK-centric in its output, which would be amazing for consumers and the planet,” says Fulton. “I think people will look for new ways to showcase their work and hopefully reassess what they are putting out. In times of crisis, sometimes creativity can really thrive.”