New style of masks, designed and built in Housatonic

Local firm pivots to save business and help the community.

You might have noticed, during your grocery or hardware or gas station run, a particular style of mask popular around town these days, and wondered at the phenomenon. It’s a markedly prettier model than your standard white face covering, with a pale beige background highlighting bright green cacti, perhaps, or yellow pasta shapes. These masks have replaced baby dresses and sweatshirts as the new must-have product from French/ American husband and wife graphic design team Aurelien and Molly de St. Andre of Moho Designs and Petit Pilou, and the company has recently gotten a boost to expand production for needy populations in South County.

The district received a $6,000 grant from the Berkshire United Way’s Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund to make 600 of their masks for people who might not be readily able to purchase masks for themselves. The masks went out with the weekly food parcels that Berkshire Hills Regional School District has been organizing for about 130 families each Friday for the past six weeks. The masks sell for $16 online, but de St. Andre wholesaled them at $10 apiece for the school system. “We would love to work with them again, and to keep going, if there is need,” says de St. Andre.

Petit pilou corona masks.

BHRSD Superintendent Peter Dillon is pleased with the collaboration as well. “We focused initially on food insecurity, then on how to prevent spread of the virus. We figured if people are struggling with food, they are probably struggling with getting masks. Molly reached out to us, we wrote a grant to the BUW fund, and they turned the grant around in two days. The masks they came out with are soft and comfortable, so there’s a greater likelihood that people will wear them.” In fact, de St. Andre says, people are reporting that the masks are so soft they can be worn comfortably all day long, unlike masks that use tight elastic bands that chafe the tops of the ears.

As of April 23rd, the BUW Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund, partnering with Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, among other funders, has already disbursed over $1,300,000 to 67 human service organizations and school districts in Berkshire County. Among other funded initiatives, Berkshire Grown has received support to procure food and milk for food pantries, and, Gladys Allen Brigham Center in Pittsfield has received money to pay the salaries for those caring for the children of essential workers. Karen Vogel, BUW’s Director of Community Impact, says of the program, “I’ve never been so proud of this community. It gives me goosebumps. It’s kept my focus. We have been working 50 hours a week on this. It’s quite an effort. Other United Ways around the country have reached out to learn how they can reproduce what we’ve done here so fast.”

Moho Designs would not appear at first blush to be a likely recipient of such a grant program. The company creates graphic identities and logos for local businesses, such as Cricket Creek Farm, Fuel Bistro, and North Plain Farm, but when revenue from their artistic ventures came to an abrupt standstill due to Covid-19, Molly realized that all the fabric scraps left over from making clothing would work perfectly for masks, so she started to make some for her mother’s friends who worked in a nursing home with nothing to protect themselves.

Advertising free masks for people in need on their website and through social media, the company soon had hundreds of requests for masks from doctors, nurses and other front-line workers from around the country, and many of their regular customers were asking to purchase masks as well.  Within days, they had pivoted their clothing business from baby clothes to masks, selling from their website and offering locals pickup in Housatonic.

“I was having hundreds of people contacting me, saying, ‘I’m not a health care worker but I want one,’ ” says de St. Andre. “It was a tough decision whether to open up for sale, since we don’t want to profit from the crisis. But we have sold 2,500 masks since April 7th, when we opened up, and this is enabling us to keep going.”

Like so many things these things, this new work has made Molly de St. Andre both more hopeful and sad. One order Molly de St. Andre had to fill was from a group of Ob-Gyns on the West Coast, who were conducting Cesarean sections and other operations wearing only bandanas around their faces.

The Petit Pilou line is printed, cut, and sewn entirely in Massachusetts, using, under normal circumstances, a regular cohort of sewers based in Dorchester. They are currently working with an expanded group of local sewers to produce masks during this crisis, supporting workers who would otherwise not have income.

“Our whole business changed, the way we work, to have a product that’s so in demand and time sensitive. Using only our sewers based in Dorchester doesn’t make sense, since it takes two days for the material to reach them.”

A corona mask for kids.

To be clear, de St. Andre emphasizes, her masks are no substitute for N95 masks. “But the N95 masks should be in the hands of frontline workers, and our masks have been proven to be effective. They are recommended. All the research, way before the CDC recommended them, in all the countries whose citizens were wearing masks, shows their numbers to be better.”

“I feel we are doing something good and helpful. It’s been a big learning curve. The cadence of this business is something we are not used to.”

One of the other things the company did was to donate three masks for every one purchase of another item from their website, where everything is on sale.

“Before we started making masks I was really scared,” de St. Andre says. “This is what pays our mortgage. The masks have taken front and center. It’s a small product at a small price but we’re moving so many of them. And people are so generous, giving donations of $200 and $300 to pay for the shipping costs for health care workers. They are paying it forward.”

The couple has two small children they’re homeschooling while also operating a whole new business. “We are working very hard,” admits de St. Andre. “We have had to switch on and off who’s working. We are preparing the scraps all day long and late into the evening every day.”

Click here to donate to the Covid-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

Click here to purchase masks from Petit Pilou.