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Nigerian fashion label Tiffany Amber swaps couture for PPE and the colorful garments of the Tiffany

The push for PPE

Days, things look a little different when Folake Akindele Coker gets to her office. "I arrive at 9 am, all geared (up) for this invisible enemy, she says. The 45-year-old designer and founder of Nigerian fashion label Tiffany Amber now start each day with a 10-minute safety talk for her production team, "who at first did not seem to understand the gravity and the potential of being infected by the (Covid-19) virus."

Coker founded Tiffany Amber in 1998, and it's now considered one of Nigeria's most influential fashion and lifestyle brands.

In early March, the number of colorful prints and couture runway garments that normally littered the factory floor dissipated, and the company's sewing machines began stitching hospital scrubs, gowns, stretcher sheets, and non-medical face masks. Less than a month after the pandemic reached Africa, Tiffany Amber's entire factory refocused to produce personal protective equipment (PPE), something Coker notes took immense pressure to turn around.

The colorful garments of the Tiffany Amber fashion line, seen here during Arise Fashion week in 2019, have since been replaced in production by PPE to help during the pandemic.

To make the shift, Coker says the company first had to secure more than 15 tons of raw materials including approximately 90,000 yards of fabric, 300,000 yards of elastic, and almost a million yards of thread. All of this happened, she says, right before borders closed in Nigeria and prices spiked due to the unforeseen demand for materials.

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As of mid-July, the World Health Organization shows Nigeria as having more than 30,000 total confirmed cases of coronavirus, the second-most on the continent behind South Africa.

As Covid-19 cases rose and consumer spending fell, Coker saw an opportunity for her business to stay open -- and to help out. "Our expertise in garment production helped facilitate this shift to bridge the gap in the supply of medical apparel," she says.

The push for PPE

This pivot has been a trend in the private sector worldwide, as companies around the globe have switched gears to supply the growing demand for PPE.

According to the World Bank, Covid-19 has pushed sub-Saharan Africa into its first recession in 25 years, greatly impacting the continent's biggest revenue drivers such as energy, agriculture, and manufacturing.

Read more: Across Africa, the pandemic reveals both inequality and innovation

Globally, the luxury market is also expected to shrink as much as 35% this year, as consumer spending sharply declines mainly due to job loss, according to consulting firm Bain and Co.

Tiffany Amber employees wearing masks and making masks.

Tiffany Amber employees wearing masks and making masks.

Efforts to make and source PPE in Nigeria have primarily relied on private corporations working hand in hand with suppliers. In an attempt to stay solvent, Coker says Tiffany Amber is working with partners in the financial sector to fund and distribute the PPE products.

By early June, she notes, the fashion label had made approximately 500,000 cloth masks, 20,000 sets of sheets and pillowcases, 10,000 scrubs, 15,000 patient gowns, and close to 5,000 surgical gowns.

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In Tiffany Amber's case, shifting to PPE production has had an unlikely silver lining: job creation. Since March, Coker says her company has actually managed to grow from 100 employees to a staff of 300.

At the time of writing, Coker does not anticipate returning to regular Tiffany Amber fashion production in the near future. But even as her company responds to the current reality, she keeps planning for when that day will come. "One mind is thinking about tomorrow morning and the other mind is processing the next two years," says Coker. "Subconsciously, I find myself drifting away, putting together the next Tiffany Amber collection.


CNN Africa