Denver Makers Save Lives by Infusing Eco-Conscious Business Practices Into Mask Production
In March, when the CDC shifted their recommendation on wearing masks and municipalities and businesses began requiring them, people with sewing and production capabilities were suddenly met with a huge task. For the United States, where there isn’t an existing “mask culture” like we see in many Asian countries, face masks became a fashion item seemingly overnight. With prints varying from sports teams to flowers, different style preferences and of course quality differences, masks mirrored what we see with a lot of apparel categories, with both cheap and expensive options in all shapes, sizes, colors, and even embellishments.
Denver isn’t really known as a fashion capital, but behind our Birkenstocks and zip-off pants is a bubbling community of makers and artisans who are creating beautiful clothes, in varying capacities. From hand-finished leotards to quilted jackets and boutiques on wheels, small businesses throughout the Denver metro area have found their niches in our city. While news headlines often highlighted luxury fashion houses and large apparel companies shifting their production supply chain, we saw people turning to their neighbors with sewing skills for homemade masks, something which is rarer than ever in today’s fast-fashion society.
I was lucky enough to talk to the owners of three small apparel businesses based in the Denver area about how masks, fabric supply chains, and business strategies have all shifted in the past months. What I found in common between three very different businesses was an unwavering spirit for providing their communities with high quality goods in a time of need. All three women shared notions of never expecting this task, yet they all realized that their skills could save lives, help out their community and keep business afloat and have found in return a flood of local support and demand.
Tucked into the Sante Fe arts district is dancewear company Luckyleo Dancewear, which has been producing beautiful leotards and other dance-related clothing since 2015. Luckyleo is a unique company, as they have established almost a complete supply chain in their Denver studio. This means that the printing of their hand-painted designs, pattern cutting, machine sewing, hand finishing, and distribution all happen under one roof. This creates a more sustainable and intentional supply chain and is an impressive feat for any apparel company, regardless of size.
When speaking with Heather Walker, former professional ballerina, who owns and operates the business with her sister Chelsea Early, their mother Karen, plus a team of local makers. She shared an unintended outcome of one of their business practices: “A few years of hoarding the small pieces of fabric from cutting our designs really paid off.” These “scraps” suddenly got a new life and were combined with cotton to create comfortable and beautifully printed masks. Their “dream spandex” is perfect for facemasks, as the elastic fabric molds to your face and makes the “ties” incredibly comfortable.
The best thing I learned while speaking to Heather is that through their mask sales, both from larger orders from private companies and municipalities as well as individual orders from their website, they have been able to keep their 15+ people fully employed. Also, they have donated thousands of masks to different and have even seen an uptick in their leotard sales as dancers, like the rest of us, adjust to practicing in their own homes. You can find Luckleo here or on their Instagram @luckyleodancewear. Their leotards are so beautiful that you may just want to get one, despite not knowing the first thing about ballet.
We have been fans of Mimi Shim’s work for a while. Her intentionally designed pieces earned a place in our hearts quickly. Mimi’s goal is to create heirloom-quality pieces that are timeless, high-quality, and made from sustainable materials. Her current collection of jackets and masks are a beautiful example of her craftsmanship and attention to detail.
Mimi didn’t originally think she was going to make masks, but after volunteering her time for a local hospital, she found demand from her family and neighbors for personal masks. Mimi began selling both adult and child-sized masks from her Denver studio. The fabric she uses to make her masks is from the cotton used in her existing jacket collection and the straps are made from stretchy ribbed materials that were leftover from making children’s clothing for her son. All masks are “made to order,” so when masks are no longer needed, no materials will have been wasted on perceived demand, a key sustainability practice.
Mimi is a perfect example of the artisanship we need to keep alive in our communities. When discussing the future of domestically produced clothing, Mimi stated, “the main thing that got broken up in this pandemic is the immediacy of Amazon. It is easier and faster to get it from someone local now...and you get better products and build community. I feel hopeful about that.” You can find Mimi’s work here or on her Instagram @mimishimstudio.
Founded in 2013, The Denver Fashion Truck is a boutique on wheels that sells goods from 40+ Colorado makers, including vintage apparel and home goods, as a pop-up shop around the Denver area. As festivals and fairs were suspended for the summer, co-owner Desiree found herself back at her sewing machine again at the beginning of April. At the same time, she and her business partner and husband, Adriene, worked to put their stock of local art, vintage clothing, jewelry, and more on their new online store.
Desiree started making masks out of leftover fabric she had from other projects and constructed the straps from upcycled T-shirts, making them super comfortable. She has found herself sewing 7 days a week, multiple hours a day since. Every time they announce the release of a new batch of masks on Instagram, they sell out quickly. Their cotton fabric is sourced from local favorite, Fancy Tiger.
“Finding good patterns is the fun part of this,” Desiree shared, “it is an odd situation, but getting to make it fun and pick a really cool pattern has helped.” She also has a young child and said making toddler-sized ones was a “unique but cute challenge.” You can find their awesome vintage goods, local art, masks in both adult and children's sizes (when they’re available!), and more here or on Instagram @denverfashiontruck to make sure you know when they restock!
Face masks leave us with a lot of questions. What do we do with them when this is “over”? Will they pass through the second-hand supply chain or simply be discarded, left in the back of closets as the memory of the months they were required slowly fade, or perhaps sentimentally kept as we often do with clothing. Will the US slowly adopt a mask culture, common in Asian countries prior to the virus? Only time will tell.
We have already seen a flood of low-quality masks made from cheap materials everywhere. Brands have taken them as an opportunity to advertise and musicians have made merchandise. Like with apparel supply chains, those sources have flaws throughout them as well. We have already started seeing masks wash up on beaches and litter streets. It is disappointing, to say the least, as disposable masks contain microplastics and other synthetic materials.
On a hopeful note, perhaps a resurgence of American apparel manufacturing will come from this. As seen with these three businesses, there is not only the ability but also demand for products made by our neighbors. The search for “American Made Clothing” is at an all-time high after beginning to climb in Mid-March. I hope we as a nation can continue the same spirit of looking locally next time we need a pair of jeans, a jacket or socks, and keep textile artisanship alive in the US for many years to come.
Alexandra Larsen, Social Media Content Specialist