It's been nearly two months since the coronavirus crisis brought New York — and the American fashion industry — to a grinding halt. But that doesn't mean designers are sitting back and giving in to panic. Whether it's making face masks à la Christian Siriano or working with Vogue and the CFDA's A Common Thread, people are trying to give back to their communities however they can.
"When all this stuff was happening and I was reading about it in China, we started looking into masks," he explains. "Being a New Yorker and living in America, we always thought we wouldn't have to worry about medical supplies, because we know America is going to take care of it."
But then, things started to come up short.
After seeing other American designers offer to get into the business of making PPE — personal protection equipment — Gurung switched gears to explore how he could put his own resources to good use. After digging around, he found that it wouldn't be possible for him to make medical masks that would meet FDA standards. So he pivoted, partnering with The Covid Foundation to fund 2,000 pieces of National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-compliant equipment, earmarked for four New York City hospitals. He's also joined designers Phillip Lim and Monse's Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia in making T-shirts to benefit All Americans.
It's admirable to see designers give back so selflessly during what is unquestionably a challenging time for business. But Gurung just sees this moment being business as usual.
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"That's how I've always been," he says quite simply. "When there was an earthquake back in Nepal and I raised $1.5 million, we were able to help build shelters and all that back home in Nepal. Sitting around, it doesn't put me at ease."
Here, the designer shares with Fashionista how he's finding certainty during uncertain times.
Initially, you wanted to make PPE, but have since changed gears. Tell me about that process.
Our initial goal was to get PPE into the hands of medical workers, there was no doubt about it. And my dream was to be able to use a local manufacturing base; we make more than 90% of our clothes in New York, so we have our factories. My hope was to not only supply the masks and everything, but also to [use] the garment industry, because I knew the factories were going to close, and almost all of my factories have reached out to me. I was really gung-ho about it.
Once I started looking into it, and I saw a few other designers saying they were going to do it, we reached out to Governor Cuomo's office and the hospitals. The hospitals couldn't take it unless it was certified; it has to be approved. I started reaching out to a few other designer friends who said they were making these masks for the hospital workers and I started doing research, and there was no way that was going to be possible. And the factories were going to close; we got an essential workers certification, but the factories were another process. I kept on thinking about it, and even making them work is putting them at risk. We soon realized that it was going to be impossible.
I decided to put my resources into actually bringing in the N95 masks [to healthcare workers], because I soon realized hospitals were running out of it. I feel like, when your government and administration fails, or when they're not efficient, it's a citizen's job and duty to rise up to [the occasion]. I decided to reach out and get those masks. I connected with all the hospitals and wanted to confirm it was in the hands of medical workers, doctors and nurses. I'm really pleased to say we got 2,000 of those N95 masks, and all of them have gone to the hospitals. We decided to choose the four [hospitals which received the masks], simply because what you may not realize right now is the [hospitals] that are most affected are in the most marginalized communities. While every medical worker is important, people there were at higher risk.
How did you get this together, and how did you decide to work with The Covid Foundation?
We partnered with The Covid Foundation to bring in these 2,000 masks [with] money I put in from our foundation and myself, because I felt like we needed to do this immediately. The Covid Foundation has access to the factories in China and they're able to get it through customs and deliver it to the hospitals. So we partnered with the hospitals we wanted to go [to] and joined with them. They had access to all this equipment for medical workers, and based on the success of what they've been doing, I felt comfortable working with them. We did it in Queens, East Harlem, Brooklyn and local clinics.
We started a relief fund on our website to raise money, because my goal is to continue doing this — 100% of what we raise, we're going to put into getting masks or any other needs and working with other grassroots organizations. We have a few things lined up now that you'll start seeing.
Why was it so important to you, as a person and as a designer, to give back in this moment?
For me, I will say this: In our life, success, notoriety, it's not just for you to enjoy and bask in the glory of it. Success is truly a test of your character: The influence you have, the reach that you have, the platform that you have, the audience that you have — what are you going to do with it? Just make stuff for your own benefit? Or are you able to bring it to use for a bigger cause?
I started my foundation almost nine years ago with a simple idea of diverting the attention I was getting into a bigger cause, and causes that needed more attention than I or my ego needed. That's how I've always been; it's just in my nature. I wanted to make sure that we were able to do it responsibly; I wanted to make sure the right kind of certified material was brought here and handed to the hospitals, not just put it in a stock room. That was really important to me. Even when we were doing our earthquake relief fund, instead of going through the big organizations, we really worked at the grassroots level; you have to get to the grassroots level because those are the immediate needs. Sometimes the bureaucracy, it takes forever to get to a certain place.
We all felt some amount of helplessness. We're not in control of what is going to happen. The virus, we don't know who is going to get it, how it's going to affect us. That's how I look at my life: We all have to go. Never has our impermanence been more clear than in this particular moment. In the midst of all this uncertainty, the thing I was certain was going to be my action, and that it was going to affect and impact as many people as it could.
Our industry beautifully rose to the occasion. So many designers have done civilian masks, and I'm so in awe of it. That's why I feel great — everyone showed up.
You've been speaking out against anti-Asian racism since this started. How has that component factored into everything?
As a creative person and person of color and a minority, we have to deal with the new reality of our own businesses and the things that have rapidly, rapidly changed how we do business and how we're going to function. We have to take care of our teams, our factories, people that we've worked with, our vendors. On top of that, right around when I started working on getting the masks and everything, I started hearing about the anti-Asian xenophobia and racism happening. Initially, I was like, "Oh my god, is this real?" And then it started to happen more and more and more.
I used to go running, and my friends in my group text told me, "Just be careful and don't go running at night, it's dangerous out there." In 20 years, I've never felt like that. I've never felt afraid in New York, ever. This was the first time there was fear attached to my existence here in New York and that was really unnerving. As a minority, growing up feeling different, you go through all of that stuff, but once you become an adult, you come to America thinking this is the land of the misfits — especially New York. I never thought we would have to face this.
Again, I have a voice and a platform. I just wanted to share the news; it was not calling out any community or particular groups of people, it was just, "Let's educate, let's speak up, let's make sure we are making people aware of what's happening," because the mainstream media was not picking it up. I still remember a few of my friends were like, "The things that you're posting, is that really happening?" I realized my voice was not enough.
To see then the silence within our community — not everyone was speaking up. I understand, because part of the Asian culture, if I may grossly generalize, is that we're so used to keeping our heads down and assimilating and keeping quiet. Some of my friends were like, "Don't tweet about it, don't Instagram it, they just want attention, just ignore it." Then I realized why they were saying that — they were hoping that ignoring it would make it go away, when the reality was it would not. People who live in New York, people I know through social interactions, they were posting anti-Asian stuff. In the time of crisis and struggles, you truly see people's core.
Phillip [Lim] and I started talking about it; there's this organization called Gold House that supports Asian entrepreneurs across the board. One of my best friends Bing [Chen] is one of the founders, so we had a long chat about it. My conversation was always about this: Our ancestors came here as a first generation, put their heads down and worked their asses off so we could have a better life. And a better life and opportunity doesn't just mean make more money — it means having the voice that they never had. It becomes our responsibility that we speak up on their behalf and that we speak up for the next generation.
This is an opportunity we have to show up and to reflect upon why as a community we often don't speak up for ourselves — and realizing why other communities weren't speaking up for us, because we don't really speak up for any other communities. It was a harsh realization, but a realization that struck all of us.
We started a campaign called All Americans with a simple idea that we are no different. It was not the idea of assimilation — we cannot [assimilate], because we look different — but it is a celebration of America and what America stands for, a celebration of differences. That's what makes this country incredibly amazing and diverse and complex. The biggest gift this country has given to all of us, despite all the challenges, is freedom of speech. It doesn't happen in many other countries, because you can be jailed for speaking up against administrations or leaders. We have the voices, we have the platform, we have the freedom of speech, so let's come together.
All Americans is an organization not just for Asian communities, but for any minority community, especially in a relief effort to bring together hardest-hit areas in the most marginalized communities, to help them out and have this conversation in cross-cultural groups. It's important that we learn now, and unlearn, and move on to new ways of being. We cannot exist without one another — it's as simple as that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.