How Fashion Influencers Are Changing the Face of COVID-19 Relief

In a time of crisis, the response from the influencer community is a tale of two cities. One collective is determined to change the narrative.

Written by Sarah Morrison


It started with a simple, and yet revealing question of the times: ‘Do you know anyone who needs Personal Protective Equipment?’ read a WhatsApp message to Serena Goh, a digital content creator based in London.

Goh suspected the answer to her father’s question was yes; after all, the 35-year-old fashion influencer, having risen to prominence by the success of her blog, The Spicy Stiletto, knew her network’s value to be vast.

Boasting over 250,000 followers on her Instagram page and close to 140,000 followers on her blog’s Facebook page, Goh swings in the big leagues where successful digital brands are concerned. Commonly called “macro-influencers,” these content creators are defined by their followings of up to 300,000—followings that more often than not, engage with these creators at extraordinary rates.

But now, plagued by an unrelenting pandemic like so many others, Goh saw the question of PPE as something of a personal call to action.

She quickly turned to her circle.

It didn’t take long before Goh’s close friend, Anthony Urbano, a prominent fashion influencer in his own right, opened up to Goh on the subject, in a group chat between the two.

As a resident of New York City, the current epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States, Urbano knew, perhaps better than most, the outbreak’s path of devastation—the rising case numbers, the abandoned storefronts, the overwhelmed healthcare systems—to be very real.

But perhaps what was most telling for Urbano, was the personal account of the crisis through the eyes of his own mother—a nurse practitioner fighting on the frontline in a hospital in New Jersey.

“I’m fine after working last night. So many codes. Hospital is chaotic. I’m ordering my own PPE. Respirator, masks, face shield, hazmat suit, everyone is doing the same thing for our own protection because hospitals are running low on these supplies,” said Urbano’s mother in a text to Urbano, later shared with Goh. “So many are getting sick and dying even nurses. One nurse in another unit died yesterday of COVID. [She] was only in her 50s.”

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Confession: I am a total mama’s boy. This is my mom and I love her and miss her and wish I could see her right now so much. She is the strongest woman I know and she also happens to be a nurse at a hospital in NJ. Last night we had a conversation that left me in tears. She told me about the dire situation at her hospital which is not uncommon to the situation at a lot of hospitals around the country. There is a severe shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the doctors, nurses, and staff. The other day they were given only ONE face mask in a brown paper bag with a note inside that instructed them to use this mask every time they came to work and to care for it as such. These masks are NOT reusable. There is still no cure for #COVID-19 and she will be among those that are in direct contact with those that are very sick on a constant basis. Furthermore, they are not willing to test nurses and doctors because there simply aren’t enough tests and because they need the staffing right now. If an asymptomatic nurse was to test positive that would require them to stay in quarantine which would stop them from being able to work. This is dangerous because if they are positive with the corona virus they could still be spreading the infection to others in the hospital while they work especially with the lack of PPE. And anyone feeling symptoms can only get tested with a doctor’s note. I can’t even begin to explain how worried and scared for her I am! She’s 64 and only a year away from her planned retirement but she won’t quit now. She cares about helping others while I’m selfishly caring about her own well being. I’m sure we all know someone on the front lines of this pandemic so think about them and how we can try to protect them so that they can help others. I’m sharing some important links in my stories today where you can donate money to directly fund organizations that will help supply PPE to hospitals around the country as well as more ways you can help. To kick things off I’m making a personal donation of $1000 to @directrelief and will continue to donate a percentage of my future income to Covid crisis relief efforts as long as it’s needed.

A post shared by Anthony Urbano (@oh_anthonio) on

It was at this moment that Goh and Urbano felt the human cost of the crisis to be more palpable than ever. Following their conversation, Goh and Urbano realized they had to act.

What resulted was the launch of the pair’s charity organization, known as The Mask Fund. Its mission? To deliver Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, to the frontline.

“[In the early days of the launch] Anthony and I probably had more FaceTime calls in a week than in the entirety of our friendship, in say, I don’t know, seven years,” said Goh.

For several weeks, Goh and Urbano searched the globe for suppliers of N95 masks, sending countless of emails per day to multiple manufacturers for contracts, and enlisting the help of other non-profit organizations, like RETI Center and Last Mile NYC, to distribute their supply.

According to The Mask Fund’s GoFundMe page created on March 31, the organization set an initial fundraising goal of $50,000. As of April 26, just four weeks later, The Mask Fund had already raised close to $20,000; the entirety of which will go directly towards protecting healthcare workers stationed in the nation’s hardest-hit hospitals.

“After our first week, with the help of your generous donations and the help of @reit_center and @lastmile_nyc volunteers, we were able to place our first order of N95 masks, writes Goh in a recent Instagram post on her personal page. “The shipment arrived in New York last week and over the weekend, volunteers such as @troprouge and @mcarthurjoseph successfully delivered the first shipment to healthcare heroes through New York and New Jersey.”

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[LONG CAPTION ALERT] It’s hard to imagine that this photo was taken on February 23. I was in the car leaving Milan Fashion Week when the news first broke that Italy had its first few cases of COVID-19. At this point, it wasn’t yet declared a pandemic and most people weren’t taking it seriously. I was cautious in a typical hypochondriac type of way but still, I continued on with my day to day – attending my backstage responsibilities and going about with work – I even finished the rest of fashion month and went on my planned trip to South Africa. By the time we landed back in London, COVID-19 had officially been declared a pandemic. My visa was expiring and I had an option to move back home to New York but thankfully, decided to shelter in place in London where I have been living since October. At this point, I essentially had nowhere to live. As I scrambled to cancel my flights and pack up my flat in Notting Hill, I landed this little apartment and my immediate retreat into self-quarantine left me really worried – I wasn’t sure how long I could stay in the UK and as my paid travel projects were canceling one by one. At this point, I was starting to feel a bit of pressure from the unknown but more importantly, I realized I needed to start embracing the moment of still. In these moments of self-isolation, I was luckily able to start some of the creative projects I’ve been holding off on, cook some of the recipes I once complained about never having time to try and most importantly, find a way to help. @oh_anthonio and I started @themaskfund with a simple objective – deliver PPE to the front line. After our first week, with the help your generous donations and the help of @reti_center and @lastmile_nyc volunteers, we were able to place our first order of N95 masks. The shipment arrived in New York last week and over the weekend, volunteers such as @troprouge and @mcarthurjoseph successfully delivered the first shipment to healthcare heroes through New York and New Jersey. Thank you everyone for your continued support. Our work here is NOT DONE YET — #LinkInBio

A post shared by Serena Goh (@theserenagoh) on

Today, The Mask Fund’s core team, write Goh and Urbano, is comprised of a “community of creatives” with a mission to “make a difference for healthcare professionals fighting an invisible war on the frontline.”

A difference arguably, is needed now, perhaps more than ever.

Now, Goh and Urbano’s response to the crisis, although not unique, is a move content creators would be foolish not to pay heed to. In an industry crowded by countless players all under the watchful eye of their followers, the bones of their personal brands are, fundamentally, considered fragile—even in the best of times. Now, in the era of COVID-19, with the actions of public figures more magnified than ever, many influencers have quickly seen their images being called into question.

In a recent article published by WIRED, author Flora Tsapovsky details the controversy surrounding mega-influencers like Arielle Charnas, who “found herself facing backlash after it seemed her status helped get her a COVID-19 test.” Just eight days after testing positive for the illness, and then announcing the news to her following of 1.3 million, Charnas “found her influence further diminished when she and her family headed to the Hamptons.”

The very next day, according to an article published by The New York Times, Charnas “posted a photo of herself and her daughter strolling around the neighborhood.” When people reacted negatively, Charnas turned off commenting on the post.

Although Charnas offered a lengthy apology on Instagram, it seemed many of her followers were not moved. Following the post made on April 2, Charnas took a break from Instagram, going silent for over three weeks until this past weekend, when she updated her fans on her time away “to reflect and be with family.”

Then, there are other prominent names, like 27-year-old entrepreneur Danielle Bernstein of We Wore What, Bernstein’s personal style platform of over 2.4 million followers, who are making a case for sensitivity over self-interest. While Bernstein has certainly not shied away from her native, “outfit of the day” content strategy, the influencer has also shown a remarkable display of responsibility in response to the current crisis.

Recently, Bernstein announced on Instagram that she would be donating 10,000 masks to protect frontline staff working in NYC hospitals. Bernstein stated she herself would pre-pay for the masks, partnering with anesthesiologist-led nonprofit, Mask A Hero, and even making the effort of updating her followers on when each shipment would be delivered.

Bernstein, also the founder of Shop We Wore What, an online shop featuring the influencer’s own designer collections, is also finding creative ways to benefit her community during what is a difficult time for most. On Instagram, Bernstein announced a one-day fundraiser through Shop We Wore What, pledging to donate all proceeds of her line drawn coloring book to Food Bank for New York City.

What resulted was a crowdfunding success of massive proportions. In just four minutes, according to an Instagram story posted by Bernstein, her customers had raised over $10,000 in proceeds from sales of the book and a select few other items—surpassing Bernstein’s initial fundraising goal. All told, in the 24-hour period, Bernstein was able to raise $20,000 for Food Bank For New York City.

These charitable milestones, the first of many to follow for Bernstein, would, evidently, be the impetus for a larger mission set forth by the influencer. In a highly anticipated IGTV post uploaded to We Wore What’s Instagram page on May 1, Bernstein announced the launch of her nonprofit platform, We Gave What.

“Over the past two months, I’ve been so inspired by my community – your stories, your commitment to helping one another, and to giving back,” writes Bernstein in the post. “Because of you, we’ve been able to make a tangible difference … All this started as a response to COVID-19 but it won’t end once the pandemic is over.”

As of May 3, just two days after the post, Bernstein had already seen 100,000 views on the post and thousands of followers to We Gave What’s newly created Instagram page. This engagement metric, an exceptional one to all those with marketing savvy, is also something of a digital barometer; a barometer marking the significant shifts in both influencer and consumer behavior in the era of COVID-19.

Like Bernstein, Laurie Ferraro, a Canadian-born digital content creator now based in New York City, is using her platform for greater purpose in the era of COVID-19. On behalf of New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, Ferraro teamed up with creative advertising agency, DeVito/Verdi, and nonprofit organization, The Partnership For New York City, for a large-scale campaign to help #StopTheSpread of COVID-19.

Bringing levity to her community in a time of crisis, Ferraro captions her post for the campaign, saying, “I know being stuck at home is hard, but right now we have to remind ourselves that it’s ok if we’re overeating or under-showering … For the sake of everyone, especially our healthcare workers, we just have to #StayHome.”

It’s evident that Ferraro’s acts of advocacy, and Goh, Urbano and Bernstein’s call for charity, is perhaps the greatest lesson the next generation of digital influencers could ever ask for. Challenged by crisis that threatens to upend their very presence, these creative thought leaders are bolstering their platform for a purpose well beyond the material, making the case for a more authentic—and nimble—influencer voice. And now, at an unprecedented scale, they just might influence the way we view all their place in the world.

© Featured image created by Christina Cardona (@troprouge)


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Word Stylist. Fashion Aficionado. Human, above-all.

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