Fashion designer Christian Siriano's face mask operation started with a tweet to Cuomo
© Courtesy of Christian Siriano

During a March press conference, New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoOn The Money: House panel pulls Powell into partisan battles | New York considers hiking taxes on the rich | Treasury: Trump's payroll tax deferral won't hurt Social Security OVERNIGHT ENERGY: California seeks to sell only electric cars by 2035 | EPA threatens to close New York City office after Trump threats to 'anarchist' cities | House energy package sparks criticism from left and right EPA threatens to close New York City office after Trump threats to 'anarchist' cities MORE (D) begged local businesses to find a way to produce face masks. “If you can make them, we will give you the funding to do it,” Cuomo pleaded to locals. “I’m asking businesses to get creative.”

Fashion designer Christian Siriano answered the call by turning his Manhattan couture atelier into an assembly line for the all-too-critical face masks needed to care for coronavirus patients.

Over the past two months, Siriano and his team of seamstresses have distributed thousands of masks to health care workers. Now, as governors across the country cautiously reopen and hospitals brace for a second wave of infected patients, demand for Siriano’s masks looks unlikely to subside anytime soon.

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Siriano, who was named a Time 100 honoree in 2018 and has built his brand by promoting body inclusivity and diversity on the red carpet, was at home watching Cuomo’s daily news conference when he realized he may be able to help. Siriano took to social media to offer his assistance to the New York governor.

“I have a full sewing team still on staff working from home that can help,” the 34-year-old designer tweeted to Cuomo. 

Within the hour, Cuomo tweeted back, taking Siriano up on his offer. Just like that, a designer famous for dressing celebrities including Leslie Jones, Angelina Jolie and Taylor SwiftTaylor Alison SwiftSocial media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day Taylor Swift on National Voter Registration Day: 'We need everyone' Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Hart among celebs highlighting National Voter Registration Day MORE — as well as designing former first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaBlack stars reimagine 'Friends' to get out the vote Obama shares phone number to find out how Americans are planning to vote Michelle Obama: 'Don't listen to people who will say that somehow voting is rigged' MORE’s dress for the 2016 Democratic National Convention — performed a 180-degree turn and restarted his operations to produce cloth masks. Like so many people across the country, Siriano was thrilled to have a role fighting the pandemic. 

In a recent interview with The Hill, Siriano stressed his desire to use his resources to help his fellow New Yorkers. 

“I didn’t want to lose my employees, so I said OK what can we do?” Siriano explained. “It was just a naive [immediate reaction] of how can we help? What can we do? I wasn’t sure if anybody was going to respond, but he did and I’m glad.”

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Within days, Siriano’s Manhattan studio was back up and running as a state-approved essential workspace, with a staff of skilled sewers creating fabric face masks to help with the COVID-19 outbreak. Funded through donations — “luckily I have a few very famous friends who donated a nice amount of money” — Siriano and his team have donated more than 50,000 masks to local first responders.

Siriano’s first challenge was turning his workshop into an assembly line to produce the fabric face coverings, all while minimizing in-person interactions and maintaining 6 feet of social distancing.

“First we really just had to figure out how to do it … what person is cutting?” he recalled. “What person is sewing? What person is doing the elastic?”

He also realized that his plan would only succeed if his staff was healthy and felt comfortable coming to the office. So, he and his team implemented new measures to reduce the potential spread of the virus and protect his employees.

Workstations are wiped down every hour and temperature checks take place twice a day. Siriano said he is providing his team with private drivers to avoid using public transportation and even a catered lunch so no one has to worry about meals. Such perks are particularly important as health officials suggest that New York’s density and heavily used subway may be fertile grounds for the spread of the virus.

Shortly after Siriano’s initial tweet to Cuomo, the Council of Fashion Designers of America member began churning out masks by the thousands with a few thousand yards of approved fabric that he coincidentally already owned. After initially producing white and gray masks, his operation has now moved on to color, leading to a noticeable boost in team morale.

“At first everything was white and gray because I felt like it was just important to make them as quickly as possible,” he explained, adding that “it feels different sewing something that’s fuchsia than something that’s gray.”

Siriano said he is designing “fantasy-looking” masks just for fun, but he is focused on producing the standard masks for now. 

Once batches of fabric face coverings are completed, the state of New York gives Siriano guidance on which facilities are most in need. Two women from his team then load the sewn masks in their car and distribute them to local hospitals that are experiencing shortages.

“We talk to the governor’s team at least once a week,” Siriano said, touting the responsiveness and logistical help he has received from the state. “They are definitely understanding the [state’s need for personal protective equipment] and also the understanding of supporting a young small business, which we are.” 

Asked how others can help, Siriano encouraged people to sew their own face coverings to give to family and friends. As for his effort, he is accepting donations at www.christiansiriano.com.