By Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Max Berlinger · BUSINESS, FEATURES, FASHION
These aren't the medical-grade N95 facial respirator masks-which continue to be in short supply and should be reserved solely for health-care professionals on the frontlines of the pandemic battle-or the allergen-, pollutant-, and germ-filtering masks from Airnium ($69 to $99) that Gwyneth Paltrow wore on Instagram. The CDC is urging the general population to wear masks made of layers or breathable fabric (such as cotton) close to the face whenever in public and in other situations in which it may be difficult to practice social distancing.
The face mask has gone from curiosity to commonplace, virtually overnight. Still, the question remains: Where do you get one?
As the pandemic has grown, hardware store-style dust masks or basic surgical ones have joined the ranks of items that went from unexceptional to hard-to-find commodities (toilet paper, canned beans, dumbbells).
The masks that large fashion brands and luxury goods manufacturers-Prada, LVMH (owner of Louis Vuitton and Dior), Kering (owner of Balenciaga and Saint Laurent), and even Lamborghini-are sewing are reserved for the medical community and, so far, for European relief efforts. Ralph Lauren, New Balance, and smaller brands such as Christian Siriano, Eileen Fisher, and Brandon Maxwell are helping out stateside.
Some designers selling to consumers are turning the new necessity into a form of self-expression. It's what the fashion industry does, by nature, and it can provide a much-needed revenue source for companies that have seen business dry up.
The outré collective known as ThreeASFOUR, for example, is making masks from silk de chine and cotton poplin (which should be washed by hand daily, they note). Designs blend Arabic and Jewish motifs, "mixing the geometric patterns of the two worlds and uniting them as one." The masks cost $44.44 and, according to the brand, "10% of each purchase goes towards creating medical masks for the support of the health community in New York City." (It should be noted many of these masks are selling out almost as soon as they became available and are being restocked periodically.)
Designer Chrys Wong of the new, sustainability-focused label Maison Modulare released a "collection" of luxury masks on her website, ranging from $18 for simple, printed cotton styles to $120 for one made of three layers of French lace (currently sold out). The California blue jeans brand Citizens of Humanity is selling five packs of cotton masks for $25 (one in denim, of course) while brand Kes is offering them in silk.
Men-focused sports-and-outdoors brand Ball and Buck is making camouflage versions for $20; with each purchase, it will donate one to a hospital in need. The American Blanket Co. (known for making the "softest, plushest, warmest blankets available") is making fleece versions at five for $30. Los Angeles-based men's brand Buck Mason is also making masks ($20 for five), donating one for each sold.
Although not specifically selling masks, fledgling label Collina Strada is offering a free mask with a purchase of anything from its site; these are made with leftover fabrics from past collections. Designer Hillary Taymour has gained momentum in recent seasons with its art school aesthetic and environmentally friendly use of dead-stock fabrics.
On a smaller scale, makers on Etsy have risen to the occasion, filling a DIY, customizable hole in the market.
Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst covering retail at NPD Group, a market research firm, sees this as a time when masks could move from specialized product to mainstream accessory: "We will see this become a staple item, as well as fashion-even if to mark this as an era to remember." Once hard to find, he predicts that masks will become staples at retail, coming in fashionable patterns, an array of colors, and even in personalized versions.
"No doubt, the rest of the fashion industry will cater for any demand from its client base to equip them," says Nick Paget, senior menswear editor at trend forecasting firm WGSN. "In the future, wearing a mask might be as much about feeling reassured as much as responding to any imminent threat."
I ask if Cohen could recall a moment in which a cultural event of any kind (not necessarily a dire one such as a global pandemic) created a sudden rush for a particular product that had no previous cachet. He cites the 1983 film Flashdance , which created an overnight market for leg warmers and off-the-shoulder sweatshirts, and the "cowboy everything" mania ignited by the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy, notwithstanding today's markedly different circumstances.
When the immediate pandemic has subsided, face masks have potential to remain an "it" item.
"Once the shortage is cleared up, they will be available like jeans," Cohen says. "Even more than fun scrubs are available today."
The trend was gathering steam in Europe and North America before the coronavirus hit. French designer Marine Serre showed medical-style face masks as part of her spring 2020 collection in September, and singer Billie Eilish wore a custom Gucci face mask, made from a gauzy black material studded with chartreuse gems in the brand's famous interlocking G pattern, at the Grammys in January. Masks of a different sort played roles in the recent critically acclaimed French indie romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the popular HBO comic book drama Watchmen.
Masks, for their part, could be just a smaller part of a bigger aesthetic movement toward "preparedness gear," says Cohen. "From high-end exclusives to mainstream brands, this will be the path from recovery to opportunity."
It can be thought of as an extension of the luxury outdoors gear that has been percolating on runways for a few seasons and of designers' ongoing interest in fashion that conjures images of the apocalypse.
"It's hard not to feel like we're waking up in a Black Mirror episode right now, so reaching for fashion items that feel reassuring is a logical consequence," says Paget.
He and his team have been interested in post-apocalyptic fashion that stems from societal anxieties for some time, citing such cultural touchstones as The Hunger Games and Netflix's Bird Box.
"As well as masks, we expect outerwear with protective hoods, gaiters, and funnel-neck designs that cover more skin to up-trend," predicts Paget, "but treatments to clothing worn directly next to the skin, including natural properties, will see marked growth."
While designers may begin adding masks to their lineups, it may be weeks or even months before supply chains and logistics allow for them to become a readily available part of daily life. A face mask in Chanel tweed? Or in Prada's signature nylon? Or buttery Birkin leather, to match your Hermes carryall? We wouldn't be surprised.
In the meantime, the CDC noted that even a homemade solution is acceptable-even preferable.
"Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure," its website reads. Suddenly, DIY make-at-home mask tutorials have proliferated online; some have suggested making them from such household items as bandanas, or even bras.
"The lasting effect of this pandemic will likely be that we pay more attention to the properties of materials certain items are made of-and the provenance of these pieces," says Paget. "It would figure that luxury brands, as well as brands such as 3M, will be those people look to for reassuring quality when it comes to meaningful protection. Future collaboration projects might well take on a much more technical edge as fashion brands link up with the big pharma companies."
It's still early, so no data are available on the size of the "fashion face mask" market, but Cohen perceives huge potential. If every person in America is asked to wear one, that's 280 million customers in the U.S. alone.
"Now multiply that out to the world," he says. "That's a big opportunity."