Sandal repair factory turns to making protective masks

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Lisa Kondrat displays the masks being made at the ReChaco factory in Rockford. Courtesy Chaco

A footwear brand is repurposing its local sandal repair factory to produce face masks and other protective equipment during the new coronavirus pandemic.

Chaco, a brand of Rockford-based Wolverine Worldwide, said last week that it is shifting the focus of its ReChaco factory in Rockford from sandal repairs and product customization to the production of face masks and other critical protective equipment, such as gowns and aprons, needed by health care and other first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We at Chaco are doers. It’s not in our team’s DNA to stand by when we have the opportunity and resources to take action,” said Lisa Kondrat, director of operations for the ReChaco factory. “We want our skills and machinery to be useful in this crisis.”

By sourcing patterns from local health care systems and collecting raw materials from parent company Wolverine Worldwide, Chaco was able to put the factory retrofitting plan in motion in a matter of days.

The ReChaco factory is equipped with industrial sewing machines, “ample” backstock of materials, and is staffed by a production team with decades of professional sewing expertise, according to Chaco.

According to a spokesperson for Chaco, the brand is working with Wolverine Worldwide and local authorities in Grand Rapids to build masks based on specific, vetted needs and specifications. They will not be N95 masks but cotton and cotton blends for use over N95s, so N95s can be reused if necessary.

They also are being designed to be used at nursing homes and among other vulnerable communities, the spokesperson said.

Chaco plans to share the patterns, sourcing leads and its learning experience as a resource for other companies and individuals looking to contribute during the pandemic.

In addition to the ReChaco factory, Chaco will deploy its ReChaco Mobile Repair Factory bus, which is currently grounded under a shelter-in-place order in the greater Portland, Oregon, area, to make supplies. The bus was developed to customize and repair Chaco sandals during the brand’s 2020 Roving Repairs Summer Tour. Outfitted with sewing machines, hot knives and other equipment for making and mending sandals, the Chaco-trained staff will shift their focus to prototyping and producing protective equipment in the Pacific Northwest. Chaco is partnering with agency partner Field Scout and sister brand Merrell to source vetted fabric and materials for that initiative.

“Our goal here is to inspire quick and creative action from other brands and companies in our space. Chaco and Wolverine Worldwide aren’t the only companies with people and machinery positioned to help in this crisis — everyone has something they can offer,” said Josh Weichhand, marketing director for Chaco.

“This is both critical aid for our communities and an opportunity to empower our teams to lead, and we know other brands with similar resources in the outdoor industry, footwear and fashion space will also rise to the occasion.”

More information about the initiative is available at chacos.com/rechacoresponse.

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