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From fashion to face shields

How grad Lili Fortin mobilized Tristan to assist health-care providers
May 1, 2020
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By Samia Aladas, BFA 96

Staff at clinique médicale de Kingsey Falls wearing Tristan’s face shields Staff at clinique médicale de Kingsey Falls, located in Centre-du-Québec, wearing Tristan’s face shields. | Photo: Martin Laverdure

As society at large copes with the evolving COVID-19 crisis, a Montreal-based fashion brand has made a crucial pivot from clothes to protective equipment.

It all started when Tristan Canada’s president, Lili Fortin, BComm 04, was informed about the dire need for face shields by a friend in the health-care system. Could Fortin’s company produce them?

“I told them I wasn’t sure,” says the 2019 “50 Under 50 Shaping Business” honouree. “I didn’t know if our machines could cut through plastic.”

Fortin soon discovered that Tristan had the capability to make the shift.

“I placed a call to our factory engineers on a Saturday afternoon. By Sunday morning I had a 3D image, a prototype and a confirmation that our laser-cutter machine could do the job.”

‘5,000 face shields a day’

Tristan’s president quickly got in touch with vendors from the company’s network to source the necessary plastic, elastic and foam to manufacture the medical-grade face shields.

Reorganizing the production line and obtaining a Health Canada licence took a day or two — by the following week Tristan was in full production mode.

“We’re now producing 5,000 face shields a day, up from 600 the first day and 1,000 the second day,” says Fortin. “We’re hoping to keep increasing that number because the demand is very, very high — much higher than we anticipated.”

The rapid changeover was partly due to the fact that Tristan’s facility in Cookshire-Eaton, Quebec was classified as an essential service at the outset of the pandemic. The factory had been producing gear for the Department of National Defence, the RCMP and the Sûreté du Québec.

‘You have to invest’

Lili Fortin, BComm 04 Tristan president Lili Fortin, BComm 04

As she adjusts to the new — and hopefully temporary — reality for her company, Fortin is doing a lot of the organizing herself, with assistance from family members and employees.

“I’m back to basics with this whole process, speaking with hospitals, taking orders and coordinating shipping, invoicing and payments.”

Recently, the Quebec government, via SigmaSanté, placed a large order for Tristan’s face shields, which has mobilized staff even further.

“We have to commit to buying a lot of the raw materials that we need,” says Fortin. “Having an order from the government gives us peace of mind to continue investing in production. To go from 600 to 5,000 you have to invest in machines and buy everything you need to make the face shields.”

With brick-and-mortar retailers closed across Canada, Tristan has been especially reliant on online sales of late. Some predictable trends have emerged since the lockdown measures were imposed.

“With so many people confined to their homes, the need for tailored suits or pants isn’t there. People want more casual clothing now.”

The power of local

Producing face shields — and uniforms for hospitals — isn’t something Fortin ever thought she’d be doing.

“We always say we’re agile, but it’s one thing to say it and quite another when you have to go out and prove it. Time is of the essence — we can’t afford to speak in weeks or months right now. It’s a matter of minutes, hours and days.”

Tristan’s efforts have generated positive feedback from health-care practitioners.

“Both Sylvie Levesque, the Emergency Department Nurse Manager, and myself were very appreciative to receive these face shields from Tristan,” says Dr. Laurie Plotnick, Medical Director of the Pediatric Emergency Department of the Montreal Children’s Hospital.

“The staff were so grateful to be given well-constructed and comfortable face shields that look like they will provide excellent protection. As front-line health-care workers, it is critical to be well-protected so that we can remain safe and continue to provide the highest standard of care to our patients.”

As she looks ahead, Fortin thinks that one of the outcomes of the global crisis may be a renewed emphasis on and appreciation for the role of local manufacturers.

“It’s something that we have fought for forever. It’s the reason we were able to shift our production quickly. If we were only relying on overseas producers during this time, we would not have been able to do this.”


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