BEIJING — As air pollution levels again reached “hazardous” and climbed to more than 15 times the recommended levels in Beijing on Thursday, people turned to face masks to protect themselves from the toxic air.
Increasingly, though, the emphasis for these masks goes beyond offering protection from the fine air pollutants that can penetrate the lungs. Chinese consumers are wearing masks that express personal style, and designers are aiming to turn a health hazard into an opportunity for a fashion trend.
Masks have evolved from SARS- and flu-era plain surgical masks and printed textiles. Current models have an industrial-looking visible filter to indicate when replacement is necessary, and more and more companies have sprung into life that also emphasize fashionable design.
“They look prettier than the normal white ones,” said May Shao, explaining the appeal of o2w masks, which are covered in peach and gray floral lace.
The masks, which Shao sells at a small boutique in Shanghai’s former French Concession, are particularly popular among the shop’s middle-class to high-end female clientele.
She said that masks have an aesthetic premium that works well in consumer China. “Some people even buy it as a gift for their friends,” Shao said.
Air pollution is a growing concern in China, and awareness is rising of the benefits of high-quality filters, said China Market Research Group’s associate principal James Roy. “Face masks are definitely a growing market,” he said, adding that, as bad air days are increasing, so is the demand for these masks to look stylish.
More and more, people “want to add some self-expression and buy masks that are more decorative. Once you have the good product, you don’t want to look like everybody else,” he said.
Wendover Brown, cofounder of Vogmask, was one of the first to see a gap in the market. The California-based company started in spring 2012 by making 60,000 masks. Brown’s son, Marc, came up with the idea after participating at Burning Man, a counterculture festival in a dried silt lakebed in the desert of Nevada. People there were wearing masks to protect themselves from the extremely fine dust particles, but the masks’ distinct industrial appearance was jarring to the overall atmosphere of the crowd.
“We thought of it as a product for Burning Man, but also for people who already work with masks. We approached gardening channels and farmers raising chickens,” Brown said.
But soon dozens of online shops in China wanted to sell their product. Until then, masks with professional filters had to be sourced from industrial providers who created a utilitarian product. Functionality was all that mattered. The high-quality Vogmasks that came in plaid, tie-dye, flowers and stripes sold well in China, and the company soon started to open retail stores.
In 2013, the masks were featured on the runway during Hong Kong Fashion Week. To further foster the trend, Vogmasks’ latest line was designed by Indian designer Manish Arora. The designs, which feature vibrant butterflies and paisleys, are sold at $35.
“Masks have moved into the fashion accessory realm,” Brown said.
Cambridge Mask, one of the most recent players on the burgeoning fashionable respiratory mask market, takes its design inspiration from British icons like Winston Churchill, Hamlet, Jane Austen, Sherlock Holmes and Prince George.
Founded by British national Christopher Dobbings, who experienced air pollution while living in Beijing, the company started selling masks in the last quarter of 2015, typically a time when air pollution is worse due to increased burning of coal.
British design works well in China, Dobbings said, especially among the target market of young, fashion conscious women with a disposable income high enough to afford stylish masks, which are typically priced around $30. The masks come in different sizes, use technology developed for the U.K. military and can be used for more than three months. There are plain masks that offer similar protection, but for many buyers, design is the deciding factor.
“The masks are popular because they want something that fits their handbag and outfit when they go outside,” Dobbings said.
Dobbings said that the company had grown by 40 percent each month since its inception, but cautioned that demand spikes whenever air pollution levels are particularly high.
Beijing weathered one of its worst hazardous air spells, lasting about a week, this December, and e-commerce site Taobao recorded more than 606,000 searches that week for respiratory masks, an increase of more than 40 percent compared to the previous month.
Last year, air pollution in Beijing increased by more than 70 percent compared to the previous year and by about 50 percent in Shanghai. Research suggests that 4,400 Chinese die prematurely due to air pollution every day.
China isn’t the only country suffering from air pollution, however. When Fredrik Kempe and Alexander Hjertsröm were traveling around India, they saw a market gap. Air pollution in many cities was so bad that Hjertsröm’s long-gone asthma resurfaced. The idea for the duo’s Airinum urban breathing mask was born when they couldn’t find a mask they would like to wear, cofounder Kempe said.
“So we decided to develop a mask that was protective, comfortable to wear and breathe in, while at the same time looked as good as any other clothing item in our wardrobe,” he said.
Several months later, the stylish masks were crowdfunded on Kickstarter, where they exceeded the funding goal by 700 percent. Vital to the masks’ success is their simple, urban design that makes them an item people want to wear, rather than something they are embarrassed of, Kempe said.
“To us, design does not need to compromise functionality. After all, a mask covers half your face, so why should they not be a way for personal expression as any other clothing item?” Kempe said.