Fashion for Frontliners
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Crisis couture? These Malaysian fashion designers want to save lives

When Malaysia’s frontline workers were in desperate need of PPE in their battle against COVID-19, designers and volunteers across the country united to make a difference.
05 May 2020

Stethoscopes and syringes are some of the usual tools of the trade for doctors and nurses.

But for a period of time in Malaysia, these medical workers were working frantically with devices of a different nature — sewing machines.

They were creating PPE (personal protective equipment) gowns, which are needed to protect themselves from being infected by COVID-19, the coronavirus that has ravaged the world. With thousands being used daily, PPE stocks were in rapid decline. In mid-April, Malaysia was reported to have just 19 days’ worth of PPE stock left.

Clips of medical workers making their own PPE — some using plastic bags or whatever material they could find to create face masks — began trending on social media.

The pictures and videos dismayed Malaysians like Melinda Looi, who were at home due to a nationwide lockdown to stem the coronavirus’ spread.

“When I first saw the videos of all the nurses and doctors sewing and cutting, even those who didn’t know how to sew before, they were sitting there and helping...that makes me cry,” laments Melinda, a well-known fashion designer.

“This is crazy, you know, it cannot be like that. It has to be us (designers), it’s our job. We are in the sewing line and not the doctors. They sew skin but they don’t need to sew fabrics.”

CREATING PPE FOR FRONTLINERS

The sight of medical workers sewing their own PPE triggered a chain reaction. “We [designers from Malaysian Official Designers’ Association] were in a chat group and were saying, ‘Look, guys, even though we are at a lockdown we should think about how we can help the frontliners. So designers came together and said, ‘Yes, we would love to help’.”

The goal: to raise RM300,000 (about US$68,800) to purchase raw materials and sew over 100,000 PPE.

“The first few days, the phone calls were non-stop,” shares Melinda. Hospitals were calling to offer fabric and asking for help sewing, while home sewers and designers approached Melinda to offer their skills.

“I would start calling Grab drivers or people or designers who have the permit to work to come and collect the fabric, arranging with hospitals to send the materials to the workshops. I was booking five or six Grabs at the same time. It’s crazy.”

Keeping her focused was the urgency of the mission.

“I’m only thinking about the protection for the frontliners. I keep telling the designers, ‘Listen if we don’t protect… don’t try to do our part to provide as many as we can, we might lose this COVID war.’ We want to be able to contribute as much as we can and fight this faster,” she says.

MALAYSIANS SHARING A COMMON THREAD

Stitch by stitch, the project started coming together. And as word spread of the initiative, more Malaysians rose up. Not just designers, but everyone from hobby sewists to refugees to women from Orang Asli communities.

Soon, there was an army of 300 strong sewing volunteers. And donations followed suit.

“Within a week, we raised RM300,000, it’s pretty amazing,” beams Melinda.

The designers weren’t alone in their mission. Local response and relief team IMARET were providing support with the delivery of the PPE. While across the Peninsular, other individuals and groups were working frantically to support their national medical workforce.

Liyana Zainal, a dressmaker who helped Melinda’s team acquire their first batch of PPE material, was working with her own volunteer team to create face shields for medical workers.

“When we delivered our first batch of face shields, the nurse who received it was in disbelief that people who weren’t from the medical field were coming together to help the frontliners. This boosted the energy of the frontliners, they were able to openly discuss with the public and seek help when needed,” shares Liyana.

“We used to think that the people staying at home are unable to help the frontliners, and the frontliners are not sure how or what help to seek from the people staying at home. This is the duty of the volunteers, we have to lead by example...so people also know that they can be helpful despite staying at home.”

MALAYSIA BOLEH

Despite the designers hitting their target, the sheer scale of PPE being used daily — in the tens of thousands — would require more to be made. Fast.

“We would like to raise more funds to buy the materials because the materials are really expensive. I’m facing the challenge of having so many people sewing but not enough material,” shares Melinda.

“Even when I go to bed, I have all these dreams about the sewing, the frontliners, the hospitals.”

While the virus continues to see Malaysians isolated at home, it has also united them in their bid to protect their countrymen, and to see their nation recover.

“It suddenly felt like we are a nation, a nation filled with love and compassion and people putting their heart (into) doing this. It gives us so much hope and love. It’s an amazing feeling and it’s very impactful.”

“I do believe we will have a better tomorrow. Thank you to all the doctors and nurses.”

This story was created using interviews conducted through online phone and video calls, as well as footage and photos taken by people involved in the project.

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About MODA

Malaysian Official Designers’ Association (MODA) is a non profit that nurtures, develops and leads the Malaysian fashion industry through creative influence and collaboration. In March 2020, Melinda Looi, president of MODA, and her fellow designers raised funds to buy material to sew PPE for Malaysia’s frontline medical workers, who were in urgent need of PPE in their fight against COVID-19.

Contributors

Director

Lydia Lubon

Producer & Writer

Chris Annadorai

Editor

Lourdes Gason

Animator

Hafiz Akmal

Executive Producer

Sharon Pereira

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