In late March, when Italy reported more than 700 deaths in one day because of COVID-19, Andrew Gonzalez was truly struck by the severity of the pandemic. “I also thought, I need a mask,” he said. Gonzalez – whose Vancouver company, Pillar Heights, makes made-to-order cycling jerseys out of hemp, French weave toile and merino wool – started researching mask design and even dove into university-level course materials on viruses. The sustainable fashion designer’s binge learning led him to a realization. “Wow,” he said. “I can make an effective mask. I can make one for my father and my mom.”
Gonzales was a bit ahead of the curve when it came to North America’s acceptance of the face mask. It wouldn’t be for another two weeks until Canada’s chief public health officer Theresa Tam would say that non-medical masks could help stop the spread of COVID-19. It was a reversal for Tam, who had previously maintained that masks were primarily for the sick and medical professionals. At the beginning of April, Gonzalez was working with four designs that he hoped would go into production in a matter of days. The fastidious designer launched six masks two weeks later.
Gonzales also wanted to have a charitable component associated with the mask production. His company connected with the Wish Drop-In Centre in Vancouver, which helps women involved in the city’s sex trade with matters of health and safety, in order to donate masks.
Since mid-April, Pillar Heights has been in overdrive producing its masks, with Gonzales working late into the night as well as bringing on new workers. Currently, orders are on hold for all but two models of the six masks.
The skills and approaches Gonzalez developed from making cycling jerseys served him as he designed masks. He worked to ensure they were comfortable and fit well. He also tested a mask while riding a bike. “It’s not ideal for a hard effort,” he said. He felt the humidity build up during a quick ride to his studio. He did have ideas for yet another model that could make breathing easier while on a bike.