Kurkova on making masks fashionable and getting them to front line workers
When model and entrepreneur Karolina Kurkova saw how bad the Covid-19 crisis was getting, she knew she wanted to help. After hearing that her home country of the Czech Republic flattened the curve by making all of their citizens wear masks, she enlisted the help of her friend, Billie Blooms designer Ashley Liemer, to start making masks at her studio in Miami. Together they have personally donated 2,500 masks to Feeding America, and with each new mask sold through Billie Blooms they will donate a mask to Feeding America. Karolina spoke with Wake-Up Call producer Emily Pinto about why she decided to start this project, and how her two young sons are adjusting to life during the pandemic.
Wake Up Call: Tell me about how you first came up with this idea?
Karolina Kurkova: When Covid-19 started spreading, I was hearing a lot of things from out of the Czech Republic, which is where I’m from, about how they were able to flatten the curve. I’ve heard from my brother who is still there, and my grandmother and friends, that the country handled this by having everyone wear masks as a mandatory measure, very early on. They also asked anyone who could sew to make masks for people who needed them. So I was watching how people in my country were handling this — everyone was posting videos of them making these masks.
So I was sitting at home, and I wanted to do something to help. I’ve known Ashley Liemer, the founder of the children’s clothing brand Billie Blooms, for almost ten years. We met through work — Ashley is a tailor and a designer, and our four-year-olds go to the same school. Now with our kids taking their classes online, we were texting a lot about how we’ve been doing with homeschooling the kids. So we’ve been in close touch over the past couple of weeks.
So as I was thinking about masks, I realized– Ashley knows how to sew! And she has a sewing machine! Maybe together we could make some masks, and we could utilize her platform so we don’t have to start from zero. Right away, she was on board. Ashley already had quite a bit of fabric from her kids’ brand, and from her work making uniforms for hotels and restaurants. So we could really hit the ground running, because we didn’t have to order fabric and wait for it.
What’s it been like going from friends to coworkers?
I already knew Ashley and her family, so I already felt comfortable with her, but we had to enter into this new working relationship very quickly, because we knew time was of the essence. It’s like we’ve been speed dating for the last two weeks. When we get to a certain point in our lives, it’s hard to make new friends, and become really close to someone new, because it takes time to build those relationships and we’re all so busy. But Ashley and I have become so close through this. We speak all day long, and every night after our kids go to bed we talk over video. Her little one, Ziggy, is two, and he’s started calling me Mama Karolina. And our kids are becoming friends, so hopefully when things are safer, they can spend some more time together in person.
Why did you decide to partner with Feeding America?
We knew that we wanted to donate masks, but in order to make as many masks as we could for donation, we knew we needed to sell some of them. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel so we looked at the TOMS model, where when you buy one we donate one. We didn’t want to have to establish a totally new relationship with an organization. I’ve been working with Feeding America for a couple of years — I’ve worked with their soup kitchens and their food banks, so I already know them. It’s an organization that people recognize, that helps people nationwide, and that is reputable and respected. So very quickly we got them on board. Then to start us off, we committed to donating 2,500 masks to Feeding America, before we even made any sales. So last Friday, we delivered the first 1,000 masks to Feeding America in Miami, and then this week we’re shipping 1,500 to their organizations in New York, and they will distribute them.
The masks are a bit more fashionable than your average medical mask — can you tell me about them?
Because we are two moms, we wanted to focus on the whole family. So we offer five different sizes in our fitted masks, starting from toddlers up to adults. We wanted to bring some fun and color to this. Given Ashley’s experience as a tailor, when you look at the fitted masks you’ll see they’re a bit more detailed, with hand stitching and a comfortable fit. They really are beautifully-made. We also offer folded masks, which are masks you might be more used to seeing, and can be bought in bulk. And you have the option to buy those to ship to yourself, or you can buy them for donation and we can ship them directly to Feeding America.
All of our fabrics are very high quality, and can be washed and dried in high heat. The fitted masks also have a pocket on the inside, so if people want to put a filter in there, they can. I’m learning a lot of things from Europe — I’ve seen people put a vacuum cleaner filter or even a coffee filter inside.
The masks aren’t here to 100% protect you from getting sick. They are here to slow down the virus when it’s absolutely essential for you to go outside and be around people. They’re here to remind us not to touch our faces, and to help protect us and protect others.
Which mask is your favorite? Which are your kids’ favorites?
My favorite is the lip one! I love to wear bright lipstick, but so much of your face is covered when you wear a mask and it’s like your face disappears. So I like that it gives a little brightness to your face.
My little one loves the doggy face, that’s his favorite. Tobin, my oldest — he’s ten, so he’s a little too “cool” for the doggy print. He likes the blue and black. The other day Tobin really wanted to go to the post office with me, just to get out of the house and do something. And before I even had to tell him, he immediately got his mask and put it on, and washed his hands before and after we went out, and removed the mask from the elastic part and not from the cloth. So it’s been kind of cool seeing how for him, this is becoming second nature, and that he understands this is what we all have to do right now to be safe.
We know wearing masks isn’t easy — it’s strange and new for a lot of us, even adults. We’re getting used to it. My children are getting used to it. Right now we’re trying to make a little story that we’ll put on a card to include with the purchase of a children’s mask. My older son understands a bit of what’s happening, but how do you explain to a young child why they have to wear a mask when they go outside? So we’re trying to come up with a very cute short story to explain why you’ve got to wear the mask, to make it a little bit less scary. Since Ashley and I are both moms, this is something we’ve been thinking about.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.com