Could nonmedical face masks become a new accessory category?
In many Asian countries, donning a mask before going outside is as routine as putting on a pair of shoes, widely considered a civic duty to protect others. And as the coronavirus threat continues, the West is catching up to the custom.
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidelines, advising all Americans to wear masks when they leave their homes, to prevent spreading the coronavirus unknowingly. But apparel brands have already been preparing, producing face coverings for essential workers and, eventually, consumer use.
“It’s important to mention that you shouldn’t think this is going to save you — you can’t start eskimo-kissing your best friends,” said controversial L.A. manufacturer Dov Charney, late of American Apparel, who is producing nonmedical masks at his Los Angeles Apparel factory and selling them for $30 for packs of three on his web site, in a range of colors and patterns. “But everybody should be using face barriers, call it a face diaper, and spit guard, a scarf, make one homemade using a T-shirt. I do not go out in public without one. I’m not a doctor or a scientist but these are extreme times.”
Face masks were an extreme fashion statement for some prior to the coronavirus outbreak. In January, pop star Billie Eilish donned a Gucci face mask with a full Gucci ensemble at the Grammy Awards. Future (and his daughter), Rihanna and Cardi B have also had red-carpet face mask moments. They have also been a mainstay for attendees at dusty music festivals.
But they hadn’t been adopted for everyday use — yet.
“There’s been a stigma to wearing masks in our culture historically because we haven’t experienced a pandemic that has forced us to be introspective on how to deal with it,” said Natasha Fishman, executive vice president of marketing at Authenthic Brands Group, which owns Hickey Freeman and Hart Schaffner Marx, both brands that are working on nonmedical PPE for essential workers fighting COVID-19. “This is a pivotal moment that will force that decision. If it’s mandated from a federal or state standpoint, what does that mean for us as brand owners and retailers to accommodate? This will likely become an accessory that will be made available, maybe just as giveaways at first, and certainly for workers it’s a must-have. But for the rest of the public, not so far down the road, masks will be something that if we are smart, we’re going to wear them.”
Fishman noted that ABG is considering testing facemasks with select brands in coming weeks. “This is not ‘go profit off this,’ but clearly there is a need and that need starts from heath-care workers, then other essential workers, then it will translate to bringing product to people that becomes part of their personality as PPE.”
“I think it’s going to become a fashion statement,” said Michael Stars founder Suzanne Lerner, who is making 500 nonmedical masks for essential workers in her Hawthorne, Calif.-based facility. “Look at Etsy and Facebook, it’s happening already. I bought some from a guy in Manhattan Beach; they are denim and one has sunflowers.”
She is contemplating manufacturing some fashion masks herself, and selling them online, as a gift-with-purchase, or with half the money going back to people in need, which several brands, among them Reformation, Hedley & Bennett and Johnny Was, are already doing.
“I think apart from social distancing and arm bumps, people will get accustomed to wearing masks. If I’m sick, I’ll put on a cute mask from Burberry, Louis Vuitton or Johnny Was. Any protection is what you’re looking for,” said Johnny Was chief executive officer Robert Trauber, who is using his overseas factories to make 10,000 nonmedical masks from leftover fabrics that he is donating to local hospitals, with plans to roll them out at retail in the future.
Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, other brands had already been responding to the environmental crisis by working on more technical filtration masks and garments for consumer use, which aren’t nearly as easy to bring to market.
Founded in 2011, Vogmask initially catered to people with “environmentally induced illnesses,” according to cofounder Wendover Brown. But she has seen interest in her product skyrocket in recent weeks.
“Unless you have fully tested the performance of the filter alone, you can’t make a mask that’s beneficial for people and right now sourcing the filter media is already difficult,” she said. “DIY masks help protect from droplets and splashes but can’t stop microscopic particles.”
Vogmask’s microfiber and organic cotton filtering masks are made in Seoul and have a four-layer design that protects from airborne particles like dust and allergens, mold and mold spores, as well as a resin exhalation valve. The trim and ear loops are sewn onto the layered mask, and Brown said that production method cannot be automated. “And then imposed on that is the multiple quality checkpoints in the manufacturing process,” she added.
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Some checkpoints include inspections of the receipt of raw materials, textile cutting, textile sewing, valve installation, final product and shipping. Vogmasks also conform to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health N95 particle filter efficiency standards, but Brown said conforming to those standards is voluntary.
The brand keeps a 400-page Technical File, and a 14-page health and safety checklist, composed of test reports for the quality and usage of the product like protection, comfort and ergonomics.
“People are trying to jump in and be helpful and use models in the marketplace to offer respiratory protection,” she said, cautioning that as a consumer, it’s important to know what you’re buying.
“I do think that health and style are going to be intricately connected going forward. You can already see this happening.” Vogmask has produced masks for Manish Arora through a licensing agreement and the brand Face Slap.
For fall, Italian brand C.P. Company reintroduced its Metropolis Jacket with N95 masks built in, as part of its revived Urban Protection range. C.P. Company president Lorenzo Osti said he revived the range because of the relevance of protecting one’s health from pollution.
“Of course we couldn’t imagine the actual scenario at that time [the collection was presented back in November[,” he said, noting his designers and suppliers are working on making some of the range available as PPE.
The company is also working to develop a range of reusable face masks, said Osti, who believes they will be “part of our daily life from now on.” The masks are in the prototype stage and the launch is to be determined.
“Reusable masks are also very important to reduce environmental impact,” Osti added, hinting at another economic and style driver. “China alone is producing 110 million disposable masks every day, and that’s not sustainable.”
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