LONDON — At the beginning of 2020 masks were a rare sight, reserved for doctors, nurses or nail salon technicians — in the West, at least. Fast-forward a year, and in most countries, they’re now the on-the-go essential — like keys, wallet and phone. In some cases they’re required by law.
Mandatory mask-wearing due to COVID-19 forced the fashion industry to think in new ways and take on new responsibilities. It also created an entirely new category of fashion accessory for brands.
In the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, swelling demand for personal protective equipment turned masks into a precious commodity, even for the frontline workers who urgently needed them to stay safe. Designers quickly stepped in to help, shifting their attention from fashion to function.
They did online tutorials on how to make masks at home — Netflix’s “Next in Fashion” star Daniel Fletcher filmed a tutorial on Instagram, and got to work himself, creating masks for his grandmother’s retirement home — while others like Christian Siriano leveraged their access to fabric and sewing machines to create medical-grade masks and PPE for hospitals facing shortages.
“Rather than sitting at home and feeling grim, that was something reactive I felt I could, and should, do,” said Deborah Lyons, an up-and-coming London designer who produced and delivered PPE and masks to some of the city’s hospitals in the early stages of the pandemic.
In London, Holly Fulton, Bethany Williams, Phoebe English and Cozette McCreery formed the Emergency Designer Network in order to respond to pleas from hospitals. They set up a Go Fund Me page to raise money and gathered London’s PR agencies to promote and fundraise; asked retailers to help with deliveries, and machinists to ramp up production. Their efforts were recognized with a Fashion Award last year. In New York, designers led by Kay Unger established Fashion for the Front Lines, while Mi Jong Lee established the New York Manufacturers Coalition.
“Many of us have shown the world that the fashion industry can be agile in a crisis, that skills learnt either on the job or at fashion schools are of huge importance beyond what many see as frivolity. It has given us time to slow down and question our output, work and source locally (mostly out of necessity) and understand that we can and should be more collaborative, more supportive and more accountable,” said McCreery.
It was the first time since World War II that fashion creators in the U.K. were forced to pause their businesses and deliver essentials rather than luxuries.
“During the war, people had to carry gas masks, a bit like today. At the beginning, these gas masks were carried in some really not fancy cardboard boxes with a string, or in a canvas. Then brands started to manufacture stuff to design elegant handbags that had a compartment for the mask,” said Lucia Savi, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The sudden shift helped designers themselves to keep going during a scary time when stores and factories were shutting, retail partners were canceling orders and revenue streams were drying up overnight.
“When everyone started to close, the situation was critical and I understood that we could use our past season stock fabrics and upcycle them to produce masks. From one perspective, we wanted to help the society, from another I also wanted to help my employees to stay busy and not get anxious,” said the Ukrainian-born designer Natasha Zinko, who was quick to start selling fabric masks on her site.
She donated half the proceeds to the U.K.’s National Healthcare System, and to date, she’s given more than 6,000 pounds, and as many as 600 masks, to frontline workers outside the health care system.
As lockdowns eased and wearing a face covering became a necessity for entering shops, restaurants or public transport, designers also found an opportunity to add a bit more creativity and optimism to mask design and start selling them to the broader public.
“I later understood that I could add fun to my masks and created an emoji series of face masks which were quite popular and sold fast online. Then we started using vintage bandanas to make face masks,” added Zinko, whose masks will be showcased as part of a new “Collecting COVID” exhibition at the Museum of London.
Many other designers in Britain and worldwide followed suit: Emilia Wickstead added charming decorative bows to her face masks and prints that matched her ladylike dresses; Christopher Kane printed one of his slogans, More Joy, all over his; Peter Dundas added a dash of his signature glamour with leopard print and gold metallic fabrics; while Balmain, Off-White and Marine Serre added their very popular logos. Halpern and Christopher Raeburn printed upbeat, colorful patterns on masks that were then sold as part of a British Fashion Council charity initiative.
“It’s not that I suddenly decided I wanted to be a mask designer, there was something bigger behind it. I wanted to do everything in my power to support the community I love and live in to be safe and get through a really difficult time in the safest and healthiest way possible, [even if] I don’t find them to be the most exciting fashion accessory out there,” said Michael Halpern, who started with masks, then volunteered to make PPE for the Royal Brompton Hospital and ended up photographing some of the frontline workers from the hospital for his spring 2021 virtual presentation.
Working with a purely functional item also gave designers perspective on their business’ purpose, and their responsibility to the broader community, not just their luxury clientele.
“There was a shift for me there that while I love runways and photo shoots, having a real sense of community within my business is hugely important, and it will constantly inform the way we operate from now on,” added Halpern.
Of course, there was also the issue of pricing. Designers like Halpern, Zinko, Kane or Fletcher sell their masks for 20 pounds to 50 pounds, but some price points can go up to 300 pounds to 400 pounds. Many have pointed to the problematic nature of premium pricing, when it comes to items that are needed for public health and sold during a global pandemic. But many brands are now treating masks as an accessory, just like handbags and shoes.
In the early days of lockdown, when masks were still hard to find, an Off-White style was sold for up to $1,000 on Farfetch. Following online backlash, the retailer stepped in and said that as a marketplace it does not set prices. It has since blocked the sale of pricey face masks on its platform.
For Lyons, who partnered with Cambridge Masks, a British company that uses military grade filtration technology for its masks, the key is maintaining a perspective on the global situation and giving back.
“I was looking for the best mask out there, and Cambridge Masks did everything I wanted them to do. Plus, it was reusable and washable. I contacted them immediately and they said they were getting a lot of proposals for collaborations but they pushed forward with ours because they liked the idea of giving back,” said Lyons. For every 10 masks sold she donates one to care homes and women’s shelters.
“We picked prints that you could match to your outfit and the aim was to offer something that you feel happy and safe wearing. It’s great to be able to give people what they need, but hopefully soon we’ll also be able to start giving them what they want,” she added.