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From dresses to medical gowns (not so easy)

A few weeks ago, I shared how I shifted the business in 2020 to produce masks for the state of Maryland. You can read about that here. I also explored producing medical gowns.

Maryland has a program for businesses (Maryland Manufacturing Network) that allows them to connect with buyers across the state. During 2020, it focused primarily on supplying medical goods, including gowns and masks. We had already donated hundreds of masks but wanted to branch out into producing goods for the medical industry. As we couldn't operate the store as normal, I needed to think of ways to shift the business while we applied for small business loans and grants to keep the lights on.

The biggest need was for PPE or personal protective equipment. While I didn't have the capability to make N95 grade masks, I knew I could produce cloth masks and medical gowns. I studied dozens of medical gown patterns, had conversations with my own physicians and dentists, and registered as a supplier on the MMN. I received a few inquiries, including from a dentist's office about potentially manufacturing gowns. I made the prototype pictured above but I didn't have enough raw material to mass produce a lot.

I contacted several companies, including DuPont, which has a partnership program with small businesses. I proposed working with them to design and create goods which could transform our business into a PPE supplier. Unfortunately, I didn't get very far and didn't hear back from the companies we contacted. While I had the knowledge, and could teach myself how to create PPE, I didn't have the support to enter the market as a mass manufacturer. During this time, I applied for many grants and loans, some to shift the business. However, the timing wasn't great and I didn't go beyond creating a few prototypes. I am happy and fortunate to say that the loans and grants we received did help us survive and the business is returning to its bread and butter of dresses, gowns and formal wear.

I am still open to becoming a producer of PPE goods. It's important and I believe something that will always be needed now and in the future. However, shifting a small manufacturing and retail business isn't easy. Even as the pandemic starts to soften, we face a lot of supply challenges and an uncertain economy for retail and manufacturing. I share this story because it's not just knowledge and desire that makes a business shift happen. Access to materials and partnerships are key to a successful change.



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