In the pandemic’s narrative, the face mask has been a shape shifter.
At first they were deemed unnecessary for healthy people, a directive likely made due the fact that medical-grade masks were in dire supply for the health-care workers who needed them most. Then the Centers for Disease Control began to officially recommend that people wear them out to do essential things like grocery shop. Contradictory statements made by health officials and President Trump have further added to the confusion on just what the official social protocol should be.
But as the world begins to emerge from the apex of the crisis (at least in a first wave) and finds a way to adjust to a new normal, wearing a face mask will now be mandatory in most public places.
Now the fashion industry is at the crossroads of a potential new accessory category. How brands will market and sell face masks — while staying sensitive to the nature of their use — is a tricky situation.
There is certainly the demand. Reports are piling up of people finding ways to make their own masks at home, pulling out dusty sewing machines, grabbing old t-shirts and bed sheets and watching how-to videos on YouTube.
The homepage of Etsy, the top marketplace for DIYers, is dominated with with photos of homemade face masks for sale. Some are basic looking, but many others are done in dainty floral prints or tie-dye (the unofficial printed trend of the pandemic). One trending style on the site is a black mask that says, “If you’re reading this, you’re too close.” (It’s a nod to Drake’s “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” mixtape cover from 2015).
Big brands and designers were quick to jump in on the emergency effort to get face masks to first responders and healthcare workers around the world. From LVMH’s massive turn to mask production, to big shoe brands like New Balance and Chaco, all the way down to more local New York City efforts from designers like Christian Siriano, Brandon Maxwell and Prabal Gurung, the industry quickly redirected its manufacturing mission.
Now, the turn from emergency efforts to new product categories — altruism back to capitalism — is an obvious point of sensitivity. But even more precarious is the interpretation of fashion and a potential backlash. While a mask is something worn on the body and technically fashion, it also has an inherent medical use.
Back when the SARS outbreak hit in Hong Kong in 2003, both Louis Vuitton and Gucci had to quell rumors that they were selling limited-edition face masks. One fraudulent email to potential customers claimed that Vuitton’s $1,800 version was made of leather and came with a monogrammed sterling silver clasp.
As of now, no big luxury label is selling face masks, though some smaller designers have delved into the category. For example, Nick Cannon’s custom face mask from the 2019 MTV Movie and TV Awards was made by L.A. designer Sheron Barber.
Other mainstream brands are now exploring the category. Steve Madden is offering “fashion masks” on its site, in prints like leopard, snakeskin and tie-dye — all retailing for $15. Activated carbon-filter inserts for the masks are also available on the site.
When Wolford converted its factories into face mask production centers, the majority of the product was for donation to healthcare workers — but the brand also sold a fraction of its supply on their site for $35; they are still sold out.
Fila is currently working on its own production, using patterns and designs out of its archives in Italy. “I think we are all going to be wearing masks for a long time,” said Jennifer Estabrook, Fila North America president, in a webinar with FN. She also hinted at the idea that the brand’s product development teams were researching how to make performance masks for the inevitable requirement that people wear masks when they work out. “Masks are a foreign concept to us… I think they are going to take some getting used to,” she added.
Ready-to-wear and athletic brands are obviously better equipped for an easy transition to face mask production, given the nature of working with fabric and sewing capabilities.
But when it comes to new technological developments of fabrics for face masks, legwear-focusd brands might have the upper hand: Last week, NPR reported on a preliminary study from Northeastern University that showed how nylon stockings could be an effective extra layer for cloth masks. The study (not yet peer-reviewed) even demonstrated that a mask with a nylon covering could even in some cases perform better than a medical-grade mask.
Out of production and in public, however, the interpretation of the face mask as a fashion statement will ultimately be left to the individual, and celebrities will surely lead the way in what is appropriate — or distasteful. Just today, Drake released “Dark Days Demo Tapes,” a new project with an album cover showing him in a balaclava-like face covering.
The 2020 Grammy Awards red carpet also offered up an eerie foreshadowing of what a fashion face mask might look like. At that time, the coronavirus outbreak was limited to China, not yet a global pandemic.
But the face mask stood as a bona fide trend for the evening, adorning the face of Billie Eilish, who has even worn them onstage. Her sheer Gucci face covering dotted with crystal-studded G logos would certainly need a reinforcement for proper use today. But either way, it’s almost certain that someone would buy one.