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The City Journals

City planning commission chair’s thriving business pivots to service pandemic crisis, keep employees on the job

Sep 09, 2020 03:51PM ● By Carl Fauver

White Elegance masks come in a wide variety of colors and patterns, including these made from pioneer costume fabrics. (Anna Barbieri)

By Carl Fauver | [email protected]

As the Taylorsville Planning Commission’s longest-serving member and current chairwoman, Anna Barbieri has learned how to problem solve and to make the best of difficult or challenging situations. Several years ago, those skills helped her and sister Tamera Perkins to start their White Elegance clothing line. And, over the past few months, it has also helped the business to begin serving more timely needs.

“Since the virus hit (in mid-March) our retail sales are off 60% to 70%,” Barbieri said. “For one thing, they are not performing [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] temple weddings, where our dresses are often worn. But our PPE manufacturing has picked about 25% of our business back up.”

Over the past nearly half-year, Barbieri estimates White Elegance has produced some 62,000 pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE): 35,000 medical gowns, 25,000 masks and 2,000 caps. But she’s expecting much more to follow.

“The federal government wants to create a stockpile of 250 million protective gowns for our current pandemic and the next one,” she said. “Many of those gowns will be disposable. That is a lot of manufacturing. I think we will be making these materials for quite some time.”

Recently, White Elegance responded to a federal solicitation to make 80,000 gowns and caps, but Barbieri and Perkins were astonished by the volume of paperwork required.

“It was a learning experience for me on how government contracts work,” Barbieri said. “I certainly don’t think it needed to be so complex. I’ve never seen a 65-page document filled with bid requirements. Every paragraph referred to some federal code. It was incredible."

At press deadline, White Elegance was still awaiting word on the federal bid. Earlier, the company produced 18,000 gowns and hats for a contract with the state of Utah. The company is drumming up additional business elsewhere.

“I began calling around to nursing homes across the [Salt Lake] valley, and we’ve made masks and gowns for some of them,” Barbieri said. “We’re trying to do whatever we can to keep our people employed and to serve needs.”

All 24 White Elegance employees work in Utah, at four different locations. Additionally, the company contracts much of its manufacturing work with a Texas company.

“We have been able to continue employing all of our Utah people, although some with reduced hours,” Barbieri said. “Also, we have not had to alter our Texas contract. We are fulfilling our commitments with them.”

Like countless small businesses across the country, White Elegance was able to take advantage of a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to help keep them afloat. 

“That really helped us, and our thanks to the Bank of Utah,” Barbieri said. “The loan covered our employee salaries for 10 to 12 weeks.”  

White Elegance has been forced to reduce its retail store hours from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. before the pandemic, to noon to 6 p.m. now. Company officials believe more retail cuts may be in their future, although they don’t ever see the day coming when their business will be 100% online.

“I don’t know what the future holds for our retail stores, because people do want to order online,” Barbieri said. “But I think we will always have some retail presence, because we have people coming in from all over the world. During [the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] general conference, it is not uncommon for our dressing rooms to be filled with people speaking four different languages.”

Before the pandemic, White Elegance produced about 250,000 dresses, sweaters, skirts and blouses each year—nearly all of it in white.

“We sell white clothing to the Masons, choirs and other organizations also,” Barbieri said.  

Company officials are confident business will bounce back once the pandemic is over. For one thing, they believe the new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple coming to Taylorsville will be a boost to business.

“I was incredibly impressed the temple is being built on the west side because it will fill such a need there,” Barbieri said. “The goal of a temple is to be a beacon of light. I can’t think of any better place to do that than right next to the I-215 freeway where so many people will see it every day. Plus, those property owners on the north side of 4700 South (directly across from the new temple site) are sitting on a goldmine. If they redo that corner (at 2700 West), you will see an explosion of wonderful development.”

But that’s all in the somewhat distant future. For now, White Elegance will continue the ongoing struggle of meeting payroll and other expenses by seeking out more opportunities to market medical gowns, masks and caps.