Make It Work: Gelareh Mizrahi on swapping handbags for PPE

An illustration of an arm and hand holding a handbag.

In our new series, we ask creative entrepreneur members how they’re pivoting during these uncertain times. Here, Miami member Gelareh Mizrahi explains how she put her accessories business on hold to source and donate PPE to hospitals

By Corinna Burford   Illustration by Elena Xausa    Wednesday 27 May, 2020   Long read 

2020 was supposed to be a big year for the Miami-based handbag designer, Gelareh Mizrahi. In September 2019, she launched a hugely successful pop-up during New York Fashion Week, and was about to roll out the concept in department stores around the world. But, as news of COVID-19 began to emerge in early February, Mizrahi knew that she needed to change gear. In China, where she manufactures her packaging and stickers, production had all but halted. ‘Everything was shut down in a way that it’s never been before,’ she says. She cancelled her team’s trip to Paris for fashion week, and a month later, on 15 March, closed her Miami store.  

For Mizrahi, the crisis had also become personal. Her brother, Isaac, is the Chief Resident at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, and he – along with thousands of other healthcare workers – were short on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). So, with her store closed, the designer put her business on hold and embarked on a new mission: to source and donate PPE to hospitals around the US. Here, Mizrahi discusses how she launched her new initiative and, with an online network of collaborators, has already donated hundreds of thousands of masks, shields and goggles.

Life in ‘the before’
‘I’ve had my handbag and accessories business for about seven years and have a store in Miami’s Design District. We also sell through our website and do limited wholesale to places such as Shopbop, Kith, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. Before COVID-19, we were in the process of rolling out pop-ups in a lot of these stores, based on the bodega concept we did last September in New York. During fashion week, for our presentation, we took over an actual bodega on Spring Street and Lafayette Street in SoHo. It was supposed to be up for five days, but it was so successful that we ended up extending it for six months. We painted the outside neon green, and then we colour coordinated everything inside. All the buyers came through and fell in love. But, instead of getting them to buy wholesale, we said, “Why don’t we roll these out in your stores?” It was the first time that I took the vision of what was happening in the Miami store and was able to bring it to the rest of the world.’

The big idea
‘On 15 March, I decided to close my Miami store, and then on the night of 21 March, I pivoted my focus to sourcing PPE. The initial drive was that my brother is a doctor at Maimonides hospital in Brooklyn, and I needed to make sure that he was protected. After finding a source online, a medical manufacturer in China, who had N-95 respirators, face goggles and shields, I placed an order for $10,000. My husband had lost his job three days before, so I had to convince him. But a few days later, we had the inventory, and I think because I moved so quickly, we were some of the first people to be able to get PPE into the country and distribute it.

‘Through sharing the process on social media, so many other people reached out to me, including a designer, Christina Tung, who is based in Bushwick. She messaged me saying, “I’m so inspired by what you did. I also put up a GoFundMe page for PPE, but I’m part of a community group on Slack. We’ve all come together to pool our resources and we’re all sourcing together”. After that, I entered into this rabbit hole of PPE sourcing.’

'From a personal standpoint, I know that my daily thought process has shifted from wondering, “What did I do with myself today?” to “What good did I do today?”'

Taking the leap
‘Growing the project has really been about connecting with other people. There’s an entire network of people who are all mobilising behind the issue of PPE shortages and trying to solve it. After Christina connected me with the Bushwick group, I reached out to every single person who was making noise about it. This included Ben Wei, who started A Million Masks and had raised $600,000, and the group behind Get Us PPE, and we started collaborating. It’s a beautiful, small silver lining to have this network and group of friends who are all working towards this cause. 

‘The Bushwick group now has become so organised that we were able to secure a contract with 3M Manufacturing in the United States. This means that we don’t have to be dealing with shipping and customs from China. And, along with A Million Masks and Get Us PPE, we were able to pool our resources to order 300,000 pieces. 

‘Through our group, which is now called “The Last Mile”, we’ve also set up infrastructure in every city with distribution and volunteers to put the PPE directly into the doctors’ hands. My husband’s new company, Reef Technology, has helped us with a lot of infrastructure, storage and manpower. We also have a 1800 number where doctors can request PPE, as well as an intake form on our website and a link that we’ve been passing around on the internet.’

The response
‘When I started, people were so supportive and eager to help that we raised $50,000 very quickly. But after a while, I noticed there was a bit of a burnout happening, where people didn’t want to continue to hear about it. People are living it every day, and I think it just got to the point where it was like, “Man, this is still an issue?” To put it in context, all of the work we’ve done is incredible, but the amount of PPE that a hospital goes through per day is so massive and that’s the one thing that sometimes feels like a chokehold. A typical hospital in New York uses 10,000 pieces of PPE every day. Recently, I decided to go back to doing my business in conjunction with the PPE efforts. But I’ve put up a link from the GoFundMe [page] directly to my website and I’m giving back 10 per cent of all sales directly to our PPE efforts.’

Life in ‘the after’
‘In the beginning, I just didn’t feel like working on my business. My entire drive and every thought of the day was dedicated to this PPE thing. Then just recently, I thought, “Oh, I like what I do”, and I almost think that I needed to get back to running my business in some sort of healing way. At the same time, there’s still so much work to be done. We’re hoping to expand the PPE project to make sure that healthcare workers in prisons are protected, as well as in indigenous communities around the country. 

‘I really don’t know what life is going to look like after this is over. From a personal standpoint, I know that my daily thought process has shifted from wondering, “What did I do with myself today?” to “What good did I do today?” I don’t think that was there in the same way before, and I think that will stay with me.’ 

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