Face mask production a lifeline for Toronto small businesses

Toronto-based fashion designer Caitlin Power initially wasn’t sure if she was going to jump on the mask-making bandwagon until an immunocompromised friend asked her to make one.

“I wasn’t even sure if I was going to wear a mask in public,” she says.

Fast-forward two months and eight prototypes later, and Power has produced between 800 to 1,000 made-to-order masks, which retail for $30 each. It’s a steep price tag as far as masks go, but her tie-dye printed neoprene masks are designed for customers who want something both effective and fashionable when out and about.

Power is among a number of entrepreneurs across many sectors that have made the switch to producing the suddenly-in-demand product.

With stage one of Ontario’s reopening plans in full swing, health officials at all levels of government are recommending people wear a non-medical mask when they are unable to maintain two metres distance when shopping or on public transportation. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford even went as far to validate business owners who are refusing service to customers not wearing face masks.

In other words, masks are a good business to be in – for now.

“There’s initially a surge in demand followed by a trend towards flat and then some intermittent re-interest in new and innovative face masks,” explains Jackie Csonka-Peeren, a Ryerson University lecturer and educator. “Market demand generally declines because people will have had their fill and the crisis will be further and further away.”

For the business owners NOW spoke with, making masks is a stopgap measure to keep the lights on while also keeping workers on the payroll. 

Power’s masks are made with a cotton liner interior and outer double-bonded neoprene fabric from Italy the designer had lying around in her studio, which she shares with a dog harness factory. She uses the harness manufacturer’s die-cut machine to cut out the mask pieces and then takes them to two “home sewers” who assemble them before applying a tie dye finish. Power ships her product once a week out to customers.

As an independent designer, Power already sold primarily online. Unlike larger fashion brands, Power did not produce collections in huge volumes, meaning she could easily switch to mask making after the coronavirus pandemic sent the economy into lockdown mode.

“[Masks have] added to my business, and because I wasn’t so big and selling huge collections I’ve been able to pivot completely,” she said, adding that her future collections are on the back-burner for now. “That stuff can wait.”

Eventually, she plans on going back to what she was doing before masks. She’s ordered more neoprene from her Italian supplier and looking at ways to improve upon her design. She’s also thinking about coordinating the masks with a new line of tie-dye dresses.

“I would love to do a filtration system and create a really amazing mask,” she said. “I want to look into how I can make the product even better given that this situation is going to be here for a while.”

Despite the province allowing shops with a street entrance to open this month, some retailers like Michel’s Bespoke, which has a downtown showroom and uptown atelier, have decided to stay closed until they feel it’s safe to re-open.

Paul Di Palma, Michel’s Bespoke chief operating officer, said masks and the federal wage subsidy are keeping the business alive.

“We are seeing income from the sale of masks. However, our revenue is down over 60 per cent,” says Di Palma. “Our only source of income right now is from the sale of masks. If we did not receive the [federal] wage subsidy, none of this would be possible.”

Garden Centre Toronto coronavirus

Samuel Engelking

To date, Michel’s Bespoke has sold 5,500 cotton masks, which start at $21.99 and go up to $44.99 each. The masks also feature a pocket in which an N95 filter can be inserted for those working in the health-care sector.

Di Palma knows his prices are high, but the brand is aimed at luxury shoppers. And, like Power’s masks, his products are designed to protect and to accessorize.

As long as the economy is on the downward trend, Di Palma says there probably isn’t going to be an appetite for luxury goods like bespoke suits, but a monogrammed mask made from high-quality cotton is something people can treat themselves to.

He’s confident that once the pandemic is over regular business will bounce back. For now, selling masks has helped keep the business afloat and given Michel’s Bespoke a reason to bring back 10 of its 14 staff — something Csonka-Peeren says you can’t put a price tag on.

“That’s not something that can be underestimated in this situation,” she says.

Putting employees first is also close to Andrew Moretti’s heart. As the president of furniture maker Request For Product, he created Canada Mask Supply in response to the need for domestically produced personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.

“It feels great knowing that we’re making a positive contribution during challenging times,” he says. “We’re filling the gap in the supply chain and keeping people working. Our team is everything.”

Canada Mask Supply’s face masks cost $25 for 10 masks, and personal protection face shields are $14.99 a pop. Since operations began in late March, Moretti says the company has made 1 million masks for customers ranging from large families to essential businesses such as transit authorities, grocery stores and food production facilities. 

The masks, which are made from two layers of 25-gram polypropylene, are washable for up to seven wears, after which they should be discarded. 

With the shift in business, Moretti says the original 45 employees from the furniture factory were able to return to the factory – plus, he’s hired 90 new employees to make masks and shields in a separate 18,000-square-foot building. 

Moretti estimates he’s spent around $50,000 on new sewing machines and new staff. He says the investment is worth it. “It’s not so much an investment of capital as the investment into processes which require human capital and health and safety.”

Staff work at stations six feet apart and have their temperature checked at the start of their shifts, workstations are regularly sanitized, and employees are provided with hand sanitizer, masks and face shields.

Moretti plans to keep Canada Mask Supply as a secondary company as the economy recovers. He wants to reduce Canada’s reliance on overseas suppliers — something he hopes will be a permanent outcome of the pandemic. “This is an opportunity for people to get into this type of business,” he says.

Similarly, Csonka-Peeren said businesses that have shifted will retain abilities that could be transferable to producing another product, similar to how auto manufacturers made technological advancements after the Second World War.

“They’re building a core competency in manufacturing over a short period of time,” she notes. “For some, that’s an opportunity to get a foothold in manufacturing. For those already in manufacturing, it gets them to expand their scope. It’s a war-time effort type thing.”

Listen to a recent NOW podcast on the growing prevalence of face masks below:


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