In 2016, Sherri Barry and Angela Johnson founded the Fashion and Business Resource Innovation Center (FABRIC), a business incubator in Tempe, to sustainably grow the fashion industry in Arizona. After running successful fashion businesses, Barry and Johnson recognized the challenges of finding manufacturing and business support for early-stage fashion companies. At FABRIC, start-up fashion brands can find the business and collaboration support they need to grow without leaving the state.


“Over the past three years and with the support of the City of Tempe, Arizona Apparel Foundation, and other organizations, FABRIC has helped 450 fashion brands launch from the incubator,” said Barry. “We’ve become known as the place that can design, develop, and manufacture just about any kind of apparel.”


Committed to Helping Their Community in a Crisis

In early March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and with personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages projected, FABRIC started receiving requests for PPE. Barry and Johnson were driven to help the local community respond to the crisis and knew they had the fundamentals in place to deliver. They focused on what they knew ‒ the design and development of sewn garments. “We believed we could make a reusable medical gown that could help mitigate the shortage because it could be washed and reused,” said Barry. “This is something that can be really helpful, and we wanted to do it."


FABRIC assembled a team, launched a war room board with what, when, where, and how to produce reusable isolation gowns and started sourcing medical-grade reusable material and trim. They had experience with medical device development, asked hospitals what they needed, and hired an FDA consultant to design safe, effective, FDA-approved gowns with custom specifications for each hospital organization.


Barry and Johnson joined an Arizona COVID-19 emergency task force that included the Arizona Commerce Authority, Arizona Manufacturing Extension Partnership (Arizona MEP), Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs and Arizona Department of Health Services. Within days, FABRIC was receiving hundreds of requests for gowns from hospitals throughout Arizona.


From Concept to Mass Producing Isolation Gowns During a Pandemic

With a reusable, FDA-approved design in place and orders exploding, FABRIC turned to Arizona MEP to help scale production. At the start, FABRIC was producing one gown every 20 minutes. In mid-April, Arizona MEP and FABRIC set a new goal to produce one gown every 60 seconds. To achieve this, Arizona MEP focused in three areas. First, apply lean manufacturing principles to expand FABRIC’s production line. Second, increase the production workforce. Third, help FABRIC outsource to contract manufacturers.


FABRIC’s production room was originally configured for small, specialized batches of garments. Arizona MEP coached FABRIC management to apply lean manufacturing principles, helped build production lines to optimize quality, tracked inputs and outputs, and hired and trained sewing machine operators. At FABRIC’s existing facility, four production lines were configured with one line added at a time to make continual improvements based on time observations and quality inspections.


With production lines expanding, Arizona MEP provided both temp-to-hire and direct-hire services to fill capacity for production sewing machine operators, production supervisors, and a staffing manager. A training program was designed and implemented for new hires to gain experience in all areas of production to understand the upstream and downstream impacts of their position as well as to cross-train workers across different positions.


With the four production lines and two shifts planned to reach an output of 2,000 gowns per day at its existing facility, FABRIC still required additional capacity to meet gown orders. Arizona MEP worked with FABRIC to develop an outsourcing strategy with product specifications, contract manufacturer evaluations and contract negotiations. To date, FABRIC is setting up three contract manufacturers in Arizona.


Scaling to 1,250 Units per Day in Six Weeks

In six weeks, Arizona MEP helped FABRIC increase production during one shift from about 24 gowns a day (one gown every 20 minutes) to 1,250 per day (one gown every 60 seconds). When the FABRIC facility hits full capacity in another few weeks with four production lines and two shifts, it expects to achieve a daily output of more than 2,000 gowns per day that meet the quality requirements of the FDA and the hospitals.


FABRIC can also demonstrate to its start-up fashion brands that it has the capacity and capability to develop and manufacture high-volume and specialty apparel in-house and in partnership with Arizona manufacturers.


“Manufacturers may have a perspective that Arizona MEP is a state bureaucracy with cookie-cutter programs. Our experience is completely opposite,” said Barry. “Arizona MEP was very creative, looked at the individual opportunities and challenges, and supported what we needed to tackle the challenge and grow. They do it in a personal, creative, and helpful way.”