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:
Health care particulate
Respirator and surgical mask
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.
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.
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.