FABRIC shows how mighty small can be.

Sherri Barry and Angela Johnson aren’t wired to play it safe. When COVID-19 jeopardized the survival of their three-year-old fashion incubator, FABRIC, they didn’t head for the shore. They swam straight into the wave.

“All you had to do is read these emails and take these phone calls,” Sherri recalls. “People are crying. It sounds dramatic, but in this case it’s true. This is a life and death issue. In this war against COVID, the people fighting it are healthcare professionals, and they don’t have what they need. I couldn’t sit on the sidelines because we do have the expertise to help.”

The effort FABRIC has spearheaded is monumental and massively disruptive: Since March, they’ve transformed their 26,000 square-foot apparel design center in Tempe, AZ, into a production hub for FDA-approved medical gowns for Arizona’s healthcare workers.

Slow fashion, scaled at warp speed.

Taking chances isn’t new to Sherri and Angela — it’s their superpower. They created FABRIC (the Fashion and Business Resource Innovation Center) to create an epicenter for apparel design, development and manufacturing in a region not known for fashion.

Their dream was fueled by decades of fashion and operations know-how, a large network of Arizona designers and a local government that recognized the potential: the city of Tempe offered free rent on their building in exchange for community programs and services.

Pivoting to PPE called on all the arrows in their quiver but added layers of complexity and cost. “I have an MBA, and everything I’ve done in the last three weeks would be against everything they would tell you in business,” says Sherri. “I’m writing checks against money and credit I don’t have and trying to hope it will work out because I don’t see that we have another choice. This is a risk based on passion. If you had a pet or a child or somebody you loved and they were sick or needed something, you would do everything you could to make that right.”

We needed to do everything it took.

Where there was a will, there was also an exacting learning curve with lives (and their livelihood) on the line. “You don’t just suddenly start to sew a bunch of items, you really have to investigate what makes PPE, what makes it safe and effective,” says Angela.

“Our designers are the doctors who are on the front lines and they told us specifically how they wanted their gowns designed,” she adds.

Sherri and Angela soon learned that the fabrics they needed to make FDA-certified isolation gowns were as scarce as the PPE itself. “There was one order we had secured and we were ready to write a purchase order,” recollects Sherri. “This is in Canada and right as we were writing it, the Canadian government came in and snatched all the fabric.” 

From the initial requests, more flooded in, prompting them to invest in equipment to scale up. First on their list: an automatic cutter to cut more pieces, faster. “Just trying to get ahold of that machine, secure it with enough funds and then get it here, and then be able to retrofit a building that doesn’t have that kind of machinery is a whole other thing,” says Angela.

“Then all of the sewing machines we needed to ramp up,” she adds. “We’ve focused on no-minimum manufacturing to help apparel entrepreneurs get started with small quantities. But that means we’re not set up to make hundreds of thousands of pieces. We needed to do everything it took to get that machinery.”

Grit meets generosity of spirit.

Lending grace to the struggle were acts of goodwill from people uniquely positioned to help. “One of the people on the team in our war room is actually a quality assurance person who is in direct contact with the FDA,” says Angela. “She knows all of the regulations and was able to help us get everything we needed to be FDA-certified.”

“You know what’s really cool is people have been connecting us with the right people in government, the right people in business, the right people who can help us with the logistical things we need, with the financial things we need,” adds Angela. “We’ve had a lot of goodwill from the last three years of helping entrepreneurs, and I feel like that goodwill is paying us back, which is pretty awesome.”

FABRIC has made 20,000 reusable isolation gowns, with plans for as many as 25,000 gowns per week. The gowns can be washed up to 100 times, vastly extending their use and making them a more sustainable choice than traditional disposable gowns.

From the struggle, a ray of hope.

Despite their determination, some moments push patience to the edge. “I walk around shaking my head all the time,” says Sherri. “It’s all the safety protocols. We get to the building every day and everybody puts gloves on and grabs Clorox wipes and we wipe down the whole building. It’s our new normal. You shake your head, but you’re just like, ‘Okay, this is what we’ve got to do. Let’s go.’”

Even mundane tasks like a trip to the bank now feel like paddling upstream. “We’re trying to get money wired to somebody, and we can’t even get into the bank to do that,” says Angela. “Sherri sat outside of a bank for an hour yesterday waiting for them to let her in. Those are the little things that make it harder to do the thing that’s already a mountain we’re trying to climb.”

As if shifting into PPE wasn’t marathon enough, FABRIC is doing double duty by offering its regular services, virtually. “We’re still doing what we always do,” says Angela. “We’ve converted our consultations and classes to online. We are still meeting with people and helping them with their design development and doing everything that we normally do.”

The pivot hasn’t been easy, but it’s brought a ray of hope — a culture shift that may finally mainstream the local, sustainable movement. “I think it’s starting to make sense to a lot of the healthcare facilities that they should have a more domestic or local resource for some of these items,” says Angela. “It’s something that aligns with what we’ve been saying and doing in our business for so many years.”

I have an MBA, and everything I’ve done in the last three weeks would be against everything they would tell you in business.”

Sherri Barry

When the worst time is the right time.

Sherri and Angela didn’t launch FABRIC to compete with fast fashion, they joined a movement to champion independent designers and bolster local economies. As the fragility of our global supply chain is more broadly acknowledged and the practical benefits of buying local become clear, their decision to scale up now was likely a prescient one.

“This stressful purchase of equipment ahead of the money was something we were dreaming about,” says Sherri. “It’s just as useful to our fashion designers so that they can go to market faster and cheaper, too. How do we possibly finance that? Supplying the gowns.”

Their advice to fellow entrepreneurs is elemental. “I think that you have to look at your organization’s skills and passions,” says Sherri. “And just say ‘How can we align those skills and passions with something that’s helpful?’”