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Shirts for masks: Young Newport clothing designers blend business and altruism to sell mask-inspired T-shirts

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Nolen Putnam, left, and Sawyer Farmer, center, longtime friends and business partners, deliver their first batch of protective masks to Fountain Valley Regional Hospital’s temporary COVID-19 testing tent on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The respirator mask has become so ubiquitous during the coronavirus pandemic that it’s easy to make the connection when looking at the T-shirts Nolen Putnam and Sawyer Farmer are selling to benefit front-line medical workers.

Deceptively minimalist, the T-shirts the best friends and college students designed for their Newport Beach-based clothing brand STKY are white, with long sleeves or short, and a block of spare black lettering on the chest that mimics the industrial text stamped on every mask, plus a subtle Orange County reference:

STKY 2020
Health care particulate
Respirator and surgical mask
N949

The entrepreneurs charge whatever the customer wants to pay — suggesting at least $15, but their online store front has an option to drop $1,000 — and use 100% of their proceeds to purchase KN-95 masks to donate to medical facilities.

On Monday, their first 150 masks went to Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, where Farmer’s father, Craig, is an emergency room doctor. Their next beneficiaries will be several nursing homes in the Los Angeles area.

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Dr. Tim Korber, left, medical director of emergency services, accepts a box of the first protective masks from Nolen Putnam and Sawyer Farmer to the Fountain Valley Regional Hospital on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The shirts draw attention to a critical piece of personal protective equipment that, though in chronically short supply nationwide, has become emblematic of the fight against COVID-19, the potentially fatal respiratory illness caused by the novel virus. It was a delicate balance to clearly reference the pandemic without explicitly mentioning the virus or disease “that’s kind of haunting” people, Farmer said.

“We don’t want to make the virus a thing,” Putnam said. “We don’t want to call it the COVID-19 shirt.”

On the positive side, masks help save and protect lives, Farmer said, and are symbols of the people fighting the battle.

Putnam, 20, and Farmer, 22, started STKY in 2016 when they were students at Newport Harbor High School. They partner with a Costa Mesa printer to make their merchandise or they use a heat press set up in a spare room at the Putnam family home. It’s a surf-and-streetwear lifestyle brand, selling T-shirts, hoodies and caps that Putnam said is built around telling stories through clothing.

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The shirts reference the text on respirator masks and are sold for whatever the buyer wants to pay.
(STKY)
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Nolen Putnam, left, and Sawyer Farmer press shirts in Putnam’s Newport Beach home.
(Courtesy of Nolen Putnam)

Putnam is studying film at Cal State Long Beach. Farmer is a pre-med student and member of the swim team at UC San Diego who is leaning toward emergency medicine or neurosurgery. Neither formally studies business in the classroom. They do that hands-on.

With universities shifting online, the pair had the time to design a shirt and hunt for a mask supplier that could fulfill their relatively small orders, finding one in Pennsylvania.

STKY has sold shirts for a cause before, including the nonprofit New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. Farmer said companies have a social responsibility.

They sold around 100 shirts to get the funds for their first mask order and are eager to sell more, although they’re already pleased, Putnam said.

“Our goal had already been fulfilled when we got the first order because our main goal was just any impact we can make,” he said.

Shirts are available at stkylifestyle.com.

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