PPE and Beyond: The Time Is Now to Reshore the Fashion Apparel Industry

by Angela Johnson and Sherri Barry

“Many new and established brands that survived pivoted to PPE, and mask manufacturing became “the new black” in fashion.”

As environmental concerns demand disruption through transparency and accountability, the fashion industry, like many others, has recently had to adapt and adopt new sustainable models. Instead of over-producing overseas, many domestic, direct-to-consumer fashion brands are seeking local, on-time or small batch manufacturing resources. The logistic, speed, humanitarian and environmental advantages of reshoring manufacturing have recently increasingly outweighed the lure of the offshore fast fashion price point for many smaller niche brands. However, finding reliable domestic resources and navigating a tired, outdated domestic industry has proven to be challenging for most startups. 

FABRIC, a fashion incubator in Tempe Arizona, was created to provide those resources and, in a few years, has incubated hundreds of niche, direct-to-consumer apparel brands who make athleticwear and eveningwear and everything in between. No two brands at FABRIC are alike, and they make almost every type of sewn product imaginable to fill many different voids in the market. 

Most apparel brands are not considered essential businesses, so many of them unfortunately did not weather the initial shutdowns of the COVID-19 storm. However, while much of the U.S. workforce left their jobs to quarantine, many people used this time and their new-found love of digital shopping and video communication as an opportunity to explore their entrepreneurial dreams of starting a fashion brand. By April 2020, FABRIC started to see an uptick in inquiries from prospective apparel entrepreneurs, which has steadily grown with each passing month. 

Many new and established brands that survived pivoted to PPE, and mask manufacturing became “the new black” in fashion. Simultaneously, the team at FABRIC took the opportunity to adapt and pivot in the new COVID world as well. As soon as the PPE shortage started to become evident, FABRIC chose to use its skills, staff and resources to manufacture safe and effective, Level 2 and 3 reusable isolation gowns to help solve the local emergency PPE shortage. With the help of its supportive community and its nonprofit, FABRIC quickly grew its capabilities from no-minimum, small-batch manufacturing of many different sewn products to high-capacity, FDA-certified PPE manufacturing, making reusable isolation gowns. FABRIC grew its staff of 20 to 100 employees almost overnight and transformed its fashion show runway space into a lean-production PPE factory capable of producing a gown every sixty seconds. 

In just a few months FABRIC was able to help mitigate the PPE shortage for Arizona to the tune of 400,000 medical gowns delivered to large and small healthcare facilities all over the state and beyond, including the Navajo Nation. Each gown can be washed 100 times, which replaces more than 40 million contaminated disposable gowns from ending up in the landfill. This sustainable solution resulted in a new brand called Reusa at FABRIC, which continues to provide PPE as COVID cases continue to surge in the U.S. Leaving traditional thinking behind and completely rethinking PPE with modern requirements enabled FABRIC to develop a better PPE solution through Reusa. The result is reusable, supply-chain stabilizing, reusable isolation gowns with a cost-per-use that is less expensive than disposable PPE. Disposable PPE was clearly a tired solution for a modern problem. What doctors, nurses, first responders and healthcare workers needed was not just more PPE, but better, modern PPE.

The fashion industry’s pivot to PPE has emphasized and accelerated the importance of reshoring apparel manufacturing. At the start of the pandemic, it was immediately clear that there was a PPE shortage and that sourcing PPE from overseas was going to be impossible. This really illuminated and magnified the need for more domestic apparel manufacturing resources and validated FABRIC’s mission. As thousands of seamstresses and fashion designers started making masks for the public, many apparel factories pivoted to make PPE for the healthcare providers like FABRIC had done. 

The designers, brands, and apparel factories that pivoted to help the nation solve its PPE shortage became essential during the pandemic. As more and more consumers demand transparency and sustainability, and U.S. companies gravitate toward conscious capitalism and sustainability, these domestic fashion businesses are poised to help usher in a new model and a domestic circular economy for this two-trillion-dollar global industry. To stay relevant in this new world, brands, designers and factories that flourish will be those that place human capital and environment higher on their priority list. They will need support from the public sector to build creative models to make this work. This is why FABRIC has always run as a public-social-cooperative-enterprise that is, essentially, a collaboration between nonprofit, for-profit, community and a city. For FABRIC, this means continuing what it has been doing and, we hope, inspiring other creative models that support domestic apparel entrepreneurs.

Angela Johnson is an award-winning, eco-friendly fashion designer, educator, consultant, humanitarian and champion for the Arizona fashion industry. She is best known as the creator of Arizona’s fashion business directory and roadmap, LabelHorde (www.labelhorde.com) and co-founder of Arizona’s fashion incubator, FABRIC — a business accelerator, design studio, academy and manufacturer that is sustainably disrupting, redefining and reshoring the fashion industry for the modern apparel entrepreneur and has helped more than 500 entrepreneurs start and grow their brands.  


Sherri Barry is a design entrepreneur, former vice president of operations at Brown Shoe Company and Tempe Chamber’s Business Woman of the Year 2019. She is best known as the creator of the apparel manufacturer AZ Fashion Source and the PPE brand Reusa (reusappe.com) and as co-founder of Arizona’s fashion incubator, FABRIC.

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