Savilino Pivots From Restaurant Gear to Tailored Face Masks
Meet the man behind the masks
In mid-March, Chris Savittiere, the man behind Elizabeth Street Cafe's iconic dresses, Jeffrey's custom leather menus, and Uchi's aprons, pivoted Savilino, his local apron/leather goods business, to create face masks for the public – even before officials made them a requirement.
He said, "I was watching the news a lot, but at the time they were not recommending people wear masks. In fact, it was quite the opposite. They were saying a cloth mask was basically useless. Our position, however, was that a cloth mask would be better than nothing at all. Also, if it would help to offer an alternative to people who might take an N95 mask out of the hands of frontline workers who need them most, then why not? It seemed like common sense to have a mask handy at a time like this when people might be in need."
Savilino creates aprons, uniforms, and other custom items for many notable restaurants including Emmer & Rye, Ramen Tatsu-ya, and Odd Duck, but founder Savittiere has been connected to the kitchen throughout his career, working his way through many kitchens from dishwasher to head chef before moving to front-of-house. "I always thought I would own a restaurant one day. Figured I knew all the ins and outs, so it was a logical aspiration. Things began to change though when I moved to Austin from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Big changes can often give pause to things you think you wanted," he said. After realizing his passion for design and working with fabrics and leather, he pursued a new path. "It's funny how life works though because after some time and a lot of experience gained, while also bartending at Lamberts part time, I was able to team up with McGuire Moorman Hospitality to work on the Elizabeth Street Cafe uniforms. This first project launched my little business into working with over 60 local restaurants in Austin, and many more across the country. Therefore, I still ended up working with restaurants, just didn't own one!"
When Savittiere realized that his own business would be shut down as a result of pandemic restrictions around March 15, he got to work on an original mask design: "There would not be a need for custom aprons or menus anymore. It was heartbreaking not just for us but to see all our clients and friends facing an uncertain future. I honestly thought it might be a huge waste of time, but when the alternative is doing nothing at all, it seemed like something to at least try. I came up with something I thought was pretty cool, shrugged a little, and said 'Let's see what happens.'"
The next morning Savittiere had to lay off his staff, but asked them to come in the next day on a contract basis ("at least for a few days") to help with inventory to sell. After posting on the website and social media, demand for masks rose sharply and the team found over 30 out-of-work home stitchers, tailors, and seamstresses to help sew the masks.
Now, materials for fourpiece kits of double-layered masks and elastic are cut by hand at the studio and bundled in packs of 30 masks to be picked up/dropped off curbside. Each sewer is supplied with thread and an English/Spanish instructional video; they choose how many packs they want to receive (some sewers are picking up hundreds to disperse to their own employees for extra work). Savittiere said, "We have to vet them a little for experience and capable machinery, but mostly we have been blessed with so many willing and able people eager to stay working through these difficult times." They have also hired additional in-house staff to help with logistics. He added, "The team is a rag-tag group of hair stylists, a restaurant manager, a couple actors, a horse-flipper, a group of staging and lighting experts, an ex-CEO, a super science-y dude with multiple degrees ... it's pretty awesome. Truly the best part of this entire experience has been giving almost 50 people a job at a time when finding work is almost impossible."
Savilino currently has the capacity to make 2,000 masks per day and has sold over 30,000 masks to 42 states in about a month of production, and all masks are delivered within 3-5 days of purchase. [Update: Since press time, Savilino has improved their turnaround time to 1-2 days.] They have partnered with the Austin Municipal Courts and Front Steps to donate over 2,800 masks for the homeless, and continued orders means Savilino keeps hiring and creating jobs. The masks come in four reversible and machine-washable options (Japanese blue chambray, natural cotton herringbone, reversible gray tones crosshatch chambray, and simple lightweight black and gray) made of double-layer poly/cotton twill with a bottom elastic that can be used as a neck strap, and are available online for adults ($12) and children ($10). The team is working on other designs to better fit those with glasses and beards, with materials more comfortable in Austin's warm weather, and on custom masks with embroidery or screen printing.
It's not really about the fashion, though Savittiere acknowledges it will likely turn to that at some point. He said, "We definitely want to use nice (and appropriate) fabrics, but our focus is more on comfort, sizing, and accessibility. I'm going to let the funky fashion mask people do their thing and [we'll] stick to our aesthetic, which has always been clean, simple, and quality by any standard. We realize that wearing a mask is new for everyone here, and it's a pretty weird thing to have to do suddenly. If we can make it comfortable and look nice, I think that can help people get past the awkwardness of wearing one. The process is ever-evolving, and it's fun to go to the drawing board and come up with new ways to fill a need."
With all signs pointing to face mask requirements for a long, indeterminate amount of time, Savilino plans to continue sewing and scaling, taking it one day at a time. "I have really enjoyed the apron and uniform business and all the wonderful restaurateurs we have built relationships with over the years, but I have to confess, I'm not sure right now whether I will go back to that," said Savittiere. "Everything is uncertain, but as long as masks are needed, I can guarantee we'll be making them and getting them in the hands of people in need. This whole experience has opened my heart and eyes to potentially evolve with more meaningful work. If we can continue to find ways to help people stay safe in these changing times or design other items that can positively impact the community and make the world a slightly better place, then I want to do that moving forward. We will just have to see."
He added, "If there's one thing this COVID-19 experience has shown me personally, it is the importance of community and each person's role in it. Everything we do has the potential to have an effect on our neighbor in some way and seeing people come together and look out for each other is an inspiring thing to witness. Let's keep it up."
Tailors looking for work: call/text 512/736-3084 for information. For bulk orders of 500 or more call 512/527-3832 or see www.savilino.com
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