When the pandemic shutdown hit, Jason Badgley sent his 16 employees home and locked the doors at his newly expanded Phunkshun Wear manufacturing shop.
Two weeks later on April 3, Gov. Jared Polis asked Coloradans to start wearing masks and slipped a custom-made covering over his face. The Phunkshun label was just below his right eye, and business at the 9-year-old Colorado company whipped a speedy U-turn.
“And now we had Gov. Polis wearing our mask. This wasn’t a normal practice … he was leading by example and it triggered a shift in our everyday behavior,” said Badgley, Phunkshun’s chief executive officer. “His display resonated and we saw a lot of inquiries. A lot.”
Phunkshun was born in 2011 in Summit County and moved to Denver in 2014. The company’s customizable ski masks and balaclavas, designed and produced in Colorado using material made with recycled plastic bottles, have become ubiquitous on the slopes. Now, after idling his stable of highly skilled cut-and-sew artisans in the third week of March, Badgley’s business is booming as he crafts thousands of his newly designed personal-hygiene masks that meet federal recommendations for slowing the spread of the coronavirus. (Phunkshun made a bunch of face coverings for The Colorado Sun, too.)
For every one he sells, another is donated to the Colorado Mask Project.
“We are so lucky to be busy right now, let alone able to find financial stability in this difficult time,” Badgley said. “But we recognized as we came back that we needed to give back. No one wants to be a pandemic profiteer. But if we can find that financial stability and offer reassurances for our employees and contribute to the well-being of the community, it’s a good thing to do.”
The entire Phunkshun team is spread across 18,000 square feet in an unassuming complex on the border of the Stapleton neighborhood. Sewers and their machines are tucked into former office space to keep everyone distanced. And, in a twist that Badgley hopes to maintain as the pandemic fades, he’s recruiting cut-and-sew artisans across Denver to help. The list includes tailors, bridal shops and a venerable window-covering business.
“It’s been a learning experience,” said Melissa Conners, the owner of Paramount Fabrics, the 50-year-old window-coverings shop in Arvada. She was able to bring back five employees for evening shifts to help Badgley make masks.
Conners’ team has never made apparel. But because the masks were already cut and ready to sew, she was able to use idled employees who worked more on the assembly side for those, while her seamstresses focused on window coverings.
“He really gave us an opportunity to bring back some people who weren’t working,” she said.
Conners, who has spent more than 30 years in Colorado’s window-covering business, bought DSC Window Fashions from its longtime owner last fall. She moved Paramount Fabrics into DSC’s 25,000-square-foot Arvada building in the third week of February.
“And coronavirus ran us out in the third week of March,” she said. “This was a very expensive and scary situation and we were just getting going when the coronavirus hit.”
Conners said she’s hardly getting rich making masks, but she’s able to keep her skilled workers on the payroll.
“Our seamstresses are artisans and they have a skill that is disappearing,” said Conners, who has hired the children of her most veteran seamstresses to work in her window covering shop. “They are really hard to find, and I definitely want to keep them as employees.”
Conners hopes to pursue more opportunities in the apparel world. Like Badgley, she’s learning how broad the cut-and-sew community is in Colorado, with similarly skilled workers spread across all sorts of industries.
“I think these new relationships we are making will last. The world is now very different and certain things in life are going to be more important than others and you want to be able to change as the world changes,” she said. “Window coverings might not be as important with all this going on, so if there are other opportunities out there we want to be able to adapt.”
Badgley and company owner Lanny Goldwasser built Phunkshun for skiers and snowboarders. They’ve expanded their insulated, water-repellent, technical fabrics into sun-protection for anglers and more fashionable scarves. So the shift to personal-hygiene masks was not a big leap. The design for the non-medical-grade masks started when they were contacted by Polis’ office for a sample he could wear when he announced his statewide push for masks.
Polis was one of the first governors to trumpet masks and the video from his press conference stirred a deluge of calls to Phunkshun.
The Phunkshun manufacturing shop is making more masks than ever before. They are part of an army of Colorado manufacturers who switched gears to make personal protection equipment for health care workers in the past two months.
The face-covering effort has been orchestrated by the Colorado Mask Project, which was created by Delanie Holton-Fessler and her friends. She owns a Denver craft studio called The Craftsman & Apprentice.
Within a week of closing the studio in mid-March, she and her friends had connected dozens of businesses and hundreds of sewers to create the Colorado Mask Project.
“We are business owners and we are busy all the time and suddenly we didn’t have anything to do and this was something we could attach ourselves to and do some concrete good,” Holton-Fessler said. “We saw this need to make mask-wearing cool and we needed people to make them so we rounded up everyone we knew.”
Since late March, the Colorado Mask Project has made and distributed more than 100,000 masks to health care workers, essential business and vulnerable populations.
“This became a vast network very quickly and it’s growing every day,” said Holton-Fessler.
Volunteer groups also emerged to provide another source of masks. It’s a network of connections that Badgley expects will last well beyond the pandemic. The biggest challenge so far, Badgley said, has been maintaining a steady supply of raw materials from suppliers enduring their own challenges. That bottleneck led to what he called “the great elastic shortage of 2020.”
“Everyone was calling each other. Did you find any elastic? Did you find anyone?” he said. “Everyone was scrambling.”
But a supplier for over-the-ears elastic was eventually found and the Colorado mask mission remained on track in a unified effort that includes hundreds of independent sewers in their homes, sewing clubs, manufacturers and diverse businesses like tailors, trade-show display developers and awning builders.
“Should there be a resurgence of a need to procure more masks, we are better equipped for a second round,” Badgley said. “It’s not like anyone in the cut-and-sew world had a playbook for what to do when something like this happens. But with the connections that have been made in the last few months, we are more prepared if it happens again.”