Lithuanian designer Robert Kalinkin talks pivoting from fashion to face masks to fight Covid-19

With a global shortage of protective medical gear and supplies needed to produce them, artists, designers, and creatives like Robert Kalinkin are breaking out of their industries to offer unorthodox solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic.

15 April 2020

Lithuanian designer, Robert Kalinkin, usually appears in the public eye for his sharp remarks and provocative ad campaigns. But in the last couple of weeks, his name has been stealing headline for another reason: his campaign to create protective clothing and masks for medical staff battling the Coronavirus pandemic across the country.

Before the epidemic, it was semi-public knowledge in Lithuania that doctors had complained about a shortage of equipment — but the news pushed others into action. From small beginnings, Kalinkin’s initiative has expanded to join forces with the online Freedom TV, quickly becoming the largest grassroots push to support for doctors in Lithuania today.

We spoke to Tautvile Daugelaite about navigating the difficult world of medical certificates, finding partners, and looking for answers in maxi pads.

“I don’t know when I first realised there was a problem. But I called the hospitals and asked them how well prepared they were, and I noticed a horrific shortage of protective gear. I found out that even in national-level institutions, volunteer tailors were sewing simple gauze masks in the basement. It’s tragic.

This isn’t my area — usually I make dresses for red carpets — but I began to think: how difficult could it be to make a face mask? I bought one FFP3 mask, which filters very fine particles, took it apart, and started to look at it from the point of an inventor. How could I construct something that would work in the same way?

Robert Kalinkin's collection of fashion face masks, “Keep The Distance”

Robert Kalinkin's collection of fashion face masks, “Keep The Distance”

I never had any interest in face masks from a fashion point of view. There is no real air pollution in Lithuania and it isn’t a part of our fashion world here. The idea was born because I needed to take care of my business. I am a creator and a businessman first, so I had to think about how to take care of my business and employees.

Read more What can e-Estonia teach us about surviving digital life under Covid-19?

On the same day that the Lithuanian government began to impose a lockdown, when all the shopping malls were closed, we rolled out our first line of masks as part of a “Keep The Distance” collection in our online store. It was a three-layer mask designed to raise awareness of the need for self-isolation. It might be better than nothing, but it wasn’t a medical mask, and we didn’t advertise it as such. We sold a couple of thousand in one week.

After making these initial masks for sale, I had the idea of sewing and donating equipment for doctors. They were just so simple to make. We broke the idea down and started looking for materials with the kind of technical specifications as those used for medical purposes. In the end, we realised that those products are usually made in the same factories as those creating medical supplies, just sold under a different certificate.

Immediately, I also started searching for companies that make filters: vacuum cleaners, air conditioning equipment, or auto industry filters. But many of those were unsuitable as they weren’t air-permeable, or used toxic substances.

As funny as it sounds, I was even considering using the filters which you can find inside feminine hygiene pads. I know that many people would laugh and flat out refuse to wear “a maxi pad on their face”. But at this point, when we are in such a desperate situation, I couldn’t care less. If it is more benefit than harm, then that’s good enough for me. We finally bought certified HEPA filters from a company that constructs air filtration systems.

Luckily, we’ve had so support and help throughout the campaign. One of the best examples is a donation we received from bread companies. They gave us 24 kilometres of the plastic wire binders that they use to fasten bags of bread so that we could adapt them to create the bendable part of the mask part around the nose. Many people working on the project are volunteers, some companies donate their materials, other companies donate by paying for their employees to work on the project. There is a fund managed by Freedom TV which also helps to pay workers and tailors.

“I am a creator and a businessman first, so I had to think about how to take care of my business and employees.”

When I started this project, we thought it would be realistic to make around 100,000 masks. After the other partners joined in, we are started looking at making 400,000 and even 500,000 masks. Now, we send out anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand everyday.

The crucial step was getting equipment to the doctors. I contacted the Ministry of Health and sent them information about the materials we were using. I asked whether they would allow us to send donate such goods without medical certificates, but they weren’t able to allow it. But even though we could not give the masks to institutions, we were allowed to donate to individuals. I contacted the heads of 101 different clinics to ask if they needed the masks and were willing to be personally responsible for sterilising them and helping us correct any problems. More than 60 per cent got back to us on the same day and said they would take the masks as soon as possible.

There are roughly 7,000 staff members on duty at any one time in Lithuania’s largest hospital. If each mask can only be worn for four hours, as per regulations, imagine the amount of equipment they require. Our largest partner, Freedom TV, had an interactive map showing all of the country’s hospitals and which equipment was running low. Every column and row in that table was blinking red, because no one even had enough to start with. That’s the reason why I started this initiative.

Read more

Lithuanian designer Robert Kalinkin talks pivoting from fashion to face masks to fight Covid-19

Celebs are in love with Eastern European designers. But is it really good for business? 

Lithuanian designer Robert Kalinkin talks pivoting from fashion to face masks to fight Covid-19

Soviets and celebrities destroyed Russia’s fashion industry. This project is building one from scratch

Lithuanian designer Robert Kalinkin talks pivoting from fashion to face masks to fight Covid-19

5 minute guide to Vilnius: spooky cemeteries and cosy pubs in Lithuania’s capital