San Diego swimwear designer shifts focus to make face masks
Leizl Totaram began producing facial coverings due to demand from local hospitals; her volunteer efforts soon turned into a business
According to San Diego fashion designer Leizl Totaram, sewing is a dying craft — which is part of the reason she decided to take advantage of her time in quarantine to make face masks.
Totaram, who lives in Mission Valley, has always had an interest in design. After graduating from The Art Institute of California — San Diego, she spend a few years in the New York fashion industry before moving back to Southern California in 2017. Last year, she launched her own venture, Leizl Luxury Swimwear, using her design experience to create customized swimsuits.
Then in mid-March, COVID-19 hit and put her small business on pause. Social distancing meant limitations on in-person consultations, and the demand for swimsuits wasn’t as high with more people staying at home.
So when Totaram’s church asked for help making face masks to donate to local hospitals — as well as prisons, shelters and nursing homes — she decided to use her free time and sewing skills to lend a hand. Totaram started gathered whatever fabric she had at home and got to work.
“I didn’t just have (a lot of) cotton material laying around the house … I literally took curtains that I haven’t used for a year or so, and then made masks out of those,” Totaram said.
However, that fabric didn’t last forever. So Totaram began waiting in two to three hour lines to shop at craft stores like Jo-Ann’s, which were deemed essential businesses. She also bought material online, but her orders were often processing for weeks or flat out cancelled. Most materials were in short supply, available in limited quantities and expensive.
Despite the challenges, she was determined. At 29 years old, Totaram was one of the youngest members in her church’s sewing team, so she wanted to take the burden off of others in the group.
“Sewing itself is such a dying craft — like barely anyone knows how to sew anymore. And people who do know how to sew are mostly older women,” she said.
On her craft store runs, Totaram bought additional materials to distribute to these women so they could avoid leaving the house or waiting in long lines. She also decided to utilize her “spunky energy” to increase her own output.
“I know some of those ladies — we’ve worked together on other volunteer sewing projects — and I know that after a few hours of sewing they are tired and that their backs hurt, and that after a few hours of cutting their hands and shoulders hurt,” Totaram said.
“For me, knowing that I can sew really well and really fast, I knew I would be able to be a really good resource for hospitals,” she continued.
Though Totaram said her “heart is in swimwear,” she was happy to channel her creativity into making masks and help those in need. To keep up with material costs, as well as make money to offset losses from her swimsuit line, the Millennial seamstress turned her volunteer effort into a business. She now sells her creations online, and each mask sold also covers the cost of a second mask that is donated to a San Diego hospital.
“People really caught on to that mission,” she said.
All of Totaram’s masks, which are available to buy via Instagram or Etsy, are made with three layers of cotton fabric. Each washable and reusable facial covering has a filter pocket, wire nose bridge and adjustable full-head straps.
Due to material shortages, Totaram said she strategically picks fabric colors and prints based on her fashion industry insight, ultimately buying what she thinks will be most “practical and popular.” Her current offerings include masks with floral and polka dot patterns, as well as solid grey and navy options. She has also started designing specialty masks for socially-distanced events like weddings and communions.
With summer’s arrival and many beaches now open, Totaram has been able to divert some of her time and resources back into her swimwear business. However, she said that her mask operation isn’t stopping anytime soon.
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