Citizens throughout the state are rapidly mobilizing in all sorts of creative, innovative and unexpected ways to help the fight against COVID-19. For Rhode Islander and swimwear designer Katie Imswiler, mobilizing meant an abrupt change from designing bikinis to designing protective face masks for healthcare workers. Imswiler owns IMSY Swimwear, a Providence-based company with a Newport satellite office. When her manufacturing partner company received a call for help, Imswiler sprung into action developing a safety mask program for Rhode Islanders on the vulnerable front lines of the crisis. We had a chance to ask Imswiler a few questions about the unforeseen pivot from bikinis to PPE. Here’s what she said.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and history of your business?  I have a BS in Textile Science, Merchandising and Design from URI. I founded IMSY in 2011 out of a need for functional swimwear that stayed on while surfing. It has evolved into a women’s swimwear/lifestyle brand designed for active, adventurous women ready to make a statement.  In parallel, I’m partnered with my manufacturing company where I’m the head of Product Design/Development.

What changes to your business have happened because of COVID-19? Business in general has slowed tremendously. Many Spring/Summer orders have been held, minimized or cancelled due to COVID-19. As small business owners, we’re all in this together and are working on creative marketing approaches to support one another during this challenging time.  Sometimes that means thinking completely outside your wheelhouse and challenging yourself. With IMSY, I am constantly striving to find design solutions that bridge the gap of aesthetics and function and those skills transferred naturally when our team wanted to find a way to help.

Why did you start making masks and who are they intended for? How will you distribute them? Rhode Island hospitals are running dangerously low and are facing shortages.  As a Rhode Island-based company we have so much appreciation and love for our state – the place that has given us roots and helped define the IMSY lifestyle over the past nine years. The masks will be distributed through the state of RI.  Specifically for Providence, Kent and South County hospitals.

When did you start making masks and how? What materials and techniques are you using? Is it just you making them or others you work with? As soon as our manufacturing company received the call from the governor, I hit the pause on IMSY work and began developing the safety mask program. First step was working on procuring the correct material.  Next was working hands-on with our pattern-making and sample-making team to develop, tweak and perfect the fit and design. The masks are being produced by the same manufacturing facility that IMSY is partnered with in Providence.  I’m lucky to work with such a talented team of cross-trained sewers who can easily transition to working with all types of materials and sewing operations. I’m also heavily involved in the cutting process and top of production quality control.

Anything you want to share with the community or think it’s important for people to know during this time? We can only plan for so much. Life will hand us obstacles and hardships but it all comes down to how we react.  Conditioning ourselves to be as strong and flexible as possible will lead to the best solutions.  We must stay positive, surround ourselves with supportive community and move forward together with compassion and integrity.