Designer Chris Savittiere built his business on blending style and functionality. His Savilino has designed and manufactured custom uniforms, aprons and leather goods for some of Austin’s most popular restaurants, including Uchi, Fixe, Launderette and several in the McGuire Moorman Hospitality portfolio.
As the public health threat of the coronavirus became evident in March, Savittiere did what so many of his friends in the hospitality world were forced to do. He pivoted. His focus shifted from manufacturing about a thousand aprons and a couple thousand pieces of leather goods each month to creating something that had a soon-to-be-explosive demand beyond the restaurant world: masks.
Savittiere laid off his small staff in the days just after the city and county ordered that dining rooms be closed. On March 22, he designed his first mask prototype, a blue denim color with white stripes made of a washable hemp-cotton blend, and a few of his workers came back on a contract basis to help him manufacture the initial run. They made a couple of hundred in the first few days, just a week after Savilino-clad employees had stopped roaming restaurant dining room floors.
A local tailoring company that had seen its workload decimated offered its team to Savittiere; he suddenly had about 20 extra sewers on temporary staff to help satisfy a demand that was growing in part because of his marketing efforts on social media.
“We knew we couldn’t make N95 masks, but we wanted to help people have some kind of barrier, especially to keep them from touching their own noses and mouths,” said Savittiere, a former resident of New Orleans who has costume making experience. “Initially it was to keep the N95 available for medical staff.”
When the Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that Americans wear masks when out in public, the orders for Savilino’s masks, which sell at savilino.com for $12 each and $10 for children’s masks (with discounts for bulk orders), started pouring in by the thousands from across the country.
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With increased demand came another change in his business model. The tailoring company recalled its staff, so Savittiere hired more cutters, sewers, packers and shippers, some of them recently laid-off hospitality workers, and enlisted a group of home sewers to help with production.
The home sewers pick up packaged materials from Savilino’s 2,000-square-foot production facility in East Austin. The company sends a video to the sewers detailing the specs on face covers that originally looked like something the Batman villain Bane would wear if he was a preppie who summered on Martha’s Vineyard before shifting to a reversible light and dark gray in recent weeks.
The rush of orders depleted the company’s supply of hemp-cotton blend, so it switched to a poly-cotton twill that can stand up to daily washings. Savittiere says their next move will be to an all-cotton product, and he foresees eventually creating a more lightweight mask as warmer weather arrives.
Savittiere, who previously co-owned the company Mr. and Mrs. Sew It All with his then wife, says the shift in business has been an eye-opening experience and one that has given him a change of heart. And while he hopes he can continue working with the hospitality industry in the future, his new mission has been rewarding in a different way.
“Being able to help out the community and being more involved in something that is more useful to a larger group of people — it’s not a luxury market, it’s more of a necessity or something that’s helpful — it’s a lot more rewarding to be honest,” Savittiere said.
He’s also happy that he’s been able to create jobs for so many, from sewers to customer service reps who had suddenly found themselves unemployed.
“We’re busy and that’s great. But to be able to give work to somebody like that feels really good,” said Savittiere, comparing, with affection, his hastily composed and spirited crew to the Bad News Bears. “Putting people to work has been a really big part of this.”
In addition to the dozens of home sewers, the Savilino production facility is home to about a dozen workers. The company has in place serious sanitary policies, according to Savittiere. Employees have their temperature taken daily with an infrared thermometer; hand sanitizer is available throughout the facility; the company bleaches the floor daily; and employees, who are all regularly washing their hands, have their own towels with their names on them to prevent any cross-contamination. Savilino is producing about 1,500 masks a day, all of which are sprayed with disinfectant and steamed before being bagged and shipped.
Savilino has manufactured and distributed approximately 25,000 masks in about a month.
The demand following the CDC recommendation led to a backlog of orders, with delivery times being pushed from a few days to about two weeks, but after ramping up production, Savittiere, who works seven long days a week, says turnaround time is back down to about a week and getting shorter.
Savittiere, whose company received a Paycheck Protection Program loan funded by ABC Bank, knows that the future of both his business and the way the country operates are uncertain. Whether this is a new normal for Savittiere and his company remains to be seen.
“The future is so uncertain, so we’re just taking this one day at a time,” Savittiere said. “There’s likely going to be new rules that people are going to have to play by. In the long run, is there going to be a cultural shift in America due to this experience? So is there now an opportunity to continue to supply things like this or things to keep people feeling safe? I don’t know if we’ll get into eco-friendly stuff or personal protection stuff. I don’t know if I’ll be flat broke when this is all over. But for the time being, we’re just doing what we can.”
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