A Tokyo station is crowded with commuters wearing face mask during rush hour, May 2020.

TOKYOOnce the World Health Organization and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention said face coverings help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, amateur seamstresses around the world took to their sewing machines to create reusable fabric masks in all manner of colors and prints. The coverings have become something of a fashion statement, with many people owning multiple versions that they choose among each day to complement their clothing.

But while masks may be the next big fashion accessory in places like the U.S. and Europe, they have already been used for years in some other Asian countries.

Even before the current virus outbreak began, people in Japan have been regular wearers of masks for a variety of reasons. Hay fever sufferers wear them to prevent inhaling pollen, and those who are ill with a cold wear them to stop their germs spreading to others.

But other reasons have nothing at all to do with health considerations.

“People here in Tokyo wear face masks for a multitude of reasons: Hay fever, of course, and a common cold, but there are also cosmetic reasons, like if you have an acne outbreak or are just rushing to the convenience store and haven’t put on any makeup,” said Jason Lee Coates, the Australian founder of H3O, a Tokyo-based public relations, branding and sales agency that specializes in scouting new young Asian and European designers. “When I first moved to Japan I always felt like Michael Jackson when I wore a mask. It was a definite cultural difference. But now, more than ever, a mask just feels right.”

Some streetwear brands have been producing masks for years. A Bathing Ape has released several versions of camouflage patterned masks printed with shark teeth, Neighborhood and Anti Social Social Club teamed up on black cotton masks printed with both brands’ logos in 2018, and Billionaire Boys Club has made multiple masks printed with monster-like toothy grins. Now, even more companies have gotten in on the action.

“A few years back masks became a medium of self-expression — even of rebellion — although your face and expression is essentially under wraps,” Coates said. “And now with the onset of COVID[-19], it has led to some amazing experimentation. In Japan and throughout Asia we had mask shortages, so fashion brands like Wonder Anatomie from Bangkok began creating masks with filter sleeves and face shields but in the same prints as their collections. This allows the wearer to be protected and stand out and not compromise that high fashion look. Another favorite young designer is Ha.Mu from Manila, who creates art-inspired handmade creations that are ultra edgy and fun.”

In Japan, many brands that normally would have been busy with their Tokyo runway shows in March instead began creating and selling masks. Anrealage did a series of patchwork styles; Yoshio Kubo’s are simple and black with a discreet logo on one side; Jun Okamoto’s are adorned with cute, colorful prints, and Somarta released ones with a lace overlay in different colors. N.Hoolywood sent out disposable surgical masks printed with its logo and instructions for use to its loyal customers and members of the press.

As Asian brands express their creativity through masks that double as works of art or branding tools, the question is whether or not Western brands will follow suit. Some, in fact, have already taken the initiative. Bridal fashion company Katie May is repurposing its special occasion fabrics to make glam masks in all-over sequins, leopard print or lace, all with a soft lining and with adjustable straps. And men’s wear designer Greg Lauren has made patchwork and printed masks using leftover materials, which he offered to the public for free except for shipping charges.

Even Antoine Arnault, scion of luxury kingpin Bernard Arnault, believes it’s only a matter of time before the brands in the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton stable — which include Dior, Louis Vuitton, Fendi and more — begin to make fashion masks. “It’s true that they are becoming fashion items like any other, so yes — we haven’t done it yet, but I think we’re going to do it,” Arnault said during a recent interview with French television.

Coates, for one, believes that the trend will continue.

“The next logical step for the face mask is for it to hit mainstream fashion,” he said. “I am working on a pop-up relaunch of the Spanish brand Desigual in Isetan Shinjuku in the fall and we are creating items for the post-COVID[-19] world which include face masks that mirror their fashion collections. Soon, the face mask will become the new normal.”