We’re nearly a month into our self-quarantine, and in that time, many businesses have radically shifted gears. In some cases—like local bespoke furniture makers Madison Flitch—they’ve eschewed their usual business model for something more urgent—helping create and sew masks for healthcare workers.
A mere month after hosting their grand opening in the East Crossroads, the team pivoted on a dime, says owner/founder John Pryor. “We were just picking up momentum before COVID-19 hit,” he says. We caught up with Pryor to get an update on how things are going three weeks later.
In mid-February, if someone would have told you that you’d be up-to-your-eyeballs making face masks for a fast-moving pandemic a couple months later, what would you have told them?
“There is a very funny picture of my part-time employee and me making confused faces at each other while sitting at two sewing machines as we prototyped a mask. It’s impossible to overstate the unlikelihood of two guys used to working with wood suddenly pivoting to fabric. But I had an MBA, was used to working on unusual projects, and had managed the processing of large volumes from my corporate days. I also leveraged my academic skills and connections to ensure the mask was backed by scientific literature and research studies. I knew we could do it—it was just going to take some hard work and smarts.”
You switched your business model very early on in this fight—what was the genesis behind it?
“I could see the quarantine was coming our way, and that luxury furniture was not going to be in demand while we stayed at home. We needed to do something that would keep our shop lights on but working and living in the city as we do, we wanted to do something that contributed to the fight against the virus. Mask-making allowed us to stay afloat while keeping the public and the medical workers to whom we donate safe. We already had the sales infrastructure, my business and organizing skills, and the vision, so it was just figuring out the right product and the people who could help make it.”
We’re three—almost four—weeks into this. How have things evolved?
“We’ve made constant improvements in the design and construction of the mask, and we’re hoping to receive fit testing soon from the Missouri Board of Health and some local hospitals to show the mask is safe according to the strictest of standards. We’re developing a mask for children and reaching out to the NFL and the Chiefs to see if they would reduce their licensing fees and requirements for a limited run of sports-related masks. We’re also using the profits from the sales of the masks to pay for 3D printers and materials to supply the hospitals with face shields. Finally, we’re exploring prototypes for medical gowns, isolation boxes, and other protective equipment in case the situation calls for it, and we’re coordinating with a team of doctors at local hospitals on needs to inform the process.”
You teamed up with quite a few respected partners, yes? Do pandemics make for strange bedfellows?
“Once it became clear there was significant demand for our mask, we needed to onboard as many partners as possible. We connected with Catholic Charities, Refugee Employment Services, Rightfully Sewn, and Eleve Dancewear to find stitchers who could make the masks remotely, and they introduced us to people from all over the city to help. We have refugees from Burma and Afghanistan working for us (and they are amazing!), disability workshops from the state of Missouri, costumers, film editors, teachers from the suburbs, unemployed bartenders, gym coaches, therapists, and church groups. Our ‘Stitcher Army’ comes from all walks of life, representing many different parts of the city. I take great pride knowing that our mask-making adventure is supporting different communities across the city. Fighting the virus is a true team effort.”
More importantly, what’s next?
“We’re now wondering if we should rebrand as ‘Madison Stitch’! We are furniture makers at heart, and we hope we can go back to making furniture art pieces sooner than later. But if we need to keep supporting the community with our protective gear, we’ll do it. Truth is, we love supporting the community, and we’ll either do it with beautiful furniture or with our safe and stylish masks.”