When Fashion Met Face Masks
The story behind the most used — and polarizing — accessory of the year.
This February, I found myself struggling through an article I was writing about the rash of violence mostly targeting Asian-Americans wearing face masks. How do I convince Americans that, at least to many East Asians, face masks were a good thing — for everyone? The CDC had recently said face masks did little to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory virus that was ravaging China, but wasn’t yet known to be in America. In fact, at the time, there was consensus that most people who wore face masks were committing a deeply selfish act; every non-medical professional you saw in a mask meant there was one less for doctors, nurses, and other essential workers. So, how could I explain that, among the people who had first-hand experience of SARS, masks didn’t communicate self-centeredness, gullibility, or paranoia? Back in China, not wearing a mask said those same things about you. I tentatively wrote this sentence: “Those who refused to wear [masks] during the outbreak — or wore them incorrectly — drew criticism.” And I hoped that Americans would have the imagination to understand that perspective.
Fast-forward six months, one pandemic, and close to 200,000 American deaths: Everything has changed. We didn’t have to imagine a doomsday. We inhabit it. And it includes masks.
Now, the idea that I’d have a difficult time explaining to the average non-Asian-American how mask-wearing is considered an act of public health is laughable (even though there are many who still don’t believe masks work). Today, there are plenty of Americans who understand the differences between N95s and non-medical cloth masks, who pay attention to the etiquette around wearing them while exercising, grocery shopping, and taking public transportation. They know about the disturbing cultural pockets of mask-deniers for whom personal liberties are more important than their neighbor’s health. Six months ago, most Americans couldn’t tell you where to buy a facial mask. These days, most Americans likely own at least one.
Like so much about this pandemic, the way that masks have entered the consumer market is unprecedented. “I can't think of anything that has become as ubiquitous over this short a period of time,” says retail analyst Neil Saunders. With the speed of a fad and the urgency of an essential item, masks went from nowhere to omnipresent in the span of a few weeks. Today, masks can be found in drugstores, big-box stores, and even gas stations. They are — aside from perhaps underwear — the most regularly worn item in America right now.
This has predictably thrown an already unstable fashion industry for a loop. The pandemic upended production capabilities and supply chains, as well as ransacked consumers’ pocketbooks, and thus their abilities and appetite to purchase new clothing and accessories. But to some fashion companies, masks presented an opportunity. Designers like Christian Siriano, Rachel Comey, and Dov Charney quickly pivoted, using their factories to create non-medical PPE (personal protective equipment) to be donated to medical facilities. For them, producing masks was not only a charitable act, but also a potential financial life raft to help offset the loss in revenue of apparel, occasion-wear, and other typically reliable fashion categories.
Some brands I spoke with, like Vida and Brave New Look, believe their decision to manufacture and promote masks has given them a newfound relevance, as well as an essential new revenue stream. Etsy reported that it earned $346 million in three months alone from face masks — a category that didn’t exist the previous quarter. Gap, which owns Old Navy and Athleta, reported $130 million in quarterly sales. The brand Lisa Says Gah offers a popular-selling affordable mask that introduced the company to a new range of customers; 70% of those who bought masks were first-time buyers, a 10% increase from her typical shoppers. A spokesperson from Sanctuary — whose five-pack of masks has become a best-seller across the internet — confirmed that their PPE line has been a boon: “We immediately added PPE masks as a way to keep our business going. We’ve seen an enormous return, and quite frankly, it’s kept us in business.”
For other fashion labels with more established brands and identities, making this transition has been complicated for some of the same reasons that I’d initially struggled with writing about masks in the first place: The initial messages that came out from our government institutions and health organizations were confusing for brands as well as for the population at large. It wasn’t until early April when the CDC finally acknowledged that non-medical masks were effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19 that folks were able to wear them with science on their side; by then, more than 10,000 Americans had already died. Brands felt pulled in two unsavory directions: Start producing “fashionable” masks and risk being labeled as opportunistic (a real hazard, given the ferocity and speed of cancel culture). Ignore it, and risk being seen as negligent.
Making the wrong decision could be catastrophic in ways beyond a brand’s financial health or public image. Dov Charney’s LA Apparel factories, which reopened to churn out masks to a swarm of positive press, soon became a hotbed for infection. Over 300 workers contracted coronavirus and four died before the county’s Department of Public Health ordered the factories to close.
One segment of fashion retail has steered clear of all this chaos, but perhaps to its detriment: luxury brands. You won’t find face masks on high-end retail sites like Net-a-Porter. Matches Fashion didnt’ stock them until this month. And while heritage labels like Louis Vuitton and Prada committed to creating masks and gowns for medical use, they have never sold them to consumers. “If you’re charging high premiums for masks, as some luxury brands will do, you do run the risk of people saying you're cashing in on a health crisis,” explains Saunders. “Unfortunately, the political debate has become so heated, that even selling masks or offering masks is a lightning rod for criticism. I don’t know any other product that’s been as politicized to the extent that retailers feel the need to bury them away and hide them.” When you search for “face masks” on luxury fashion retailers, you’re more likely to come across $95 SKII facial treatment sheet masks than PPE. Net-a-Porter declined to provide a statement, and Matches did not respond to questions about why they waited until August to stock masks on their site.
High-end designer versions of masks do exist, but they’ve been created by younger, more progressive labels like Marine Serre, Collins Strada, and Off White. A couple department stores, including Nordstrom, offered masks from their existing vendors. “It was a seamless process to add masks into our accessories and we’re excited to offer customers different styles and designs,” a Nordstrom spokesperson said.
But many higher-end retailers who carry these masks are reticent to talk about it. Farfetch never responded to queries, and after a month of discussions with Shopbop for an interview about their decision to highlight masks as one of their top categories on its site’s navigation bar, it eventually pulled out of the interview.
Masks were never going to be an uncomplicated win for the fashion industry — or even an easy one. One of the reasons that masks have been so difficult to introduce is the inherent challenge of designing comfortable, high-quality, safe masks. Masks, writ large, are uncomfortable to wear: They fog up glasses, pull on ears, slide down faces, and give wearers mascne. Certain fabrics that feel good against skin are among the least effective at protecting the wearer or the public. Masks that come with an exhalation valve are more comfortable to wear, but more dangerous for others. Add to that the lack of regulations, standards, or guidelines; for consumers, there’s immense pressure and risks involved with buying the right mask, but very little reassurance that we’re making the right decisions.
Designers and retailers have a responsibility to get it right — and quickly — which Saunders points out is key to retailers establishing masks as a more permanent fashion category. “What you don’t want [as a retailer] is to offer masks that people buy on the basis that they’re going to be protected, and they somehow find out that your masks do a lousy job at protecting people,” he says. “That’s very, very important.”
As common as masks are now, there’s also the very attractive prospect that upon the implementation of an effective vaccine, they will disappear as quickly as they arrived. And, there’s no guarantee that masks will be something people continue to buy for as long as contracting COVID-19 is a daily threat — after all, how many masks does one person even need? Some fashion designers who already cannot afford to take on more risk are wary of investing too much in designing and manufacturing masks, lest the public’s need and desire for non-medical masks disappear after a vaccine. But, if we look at East Asian countries that dealt with the SARS epidemic, mask-wearing has remained a habit. In Japan, where disposable blue and white medical masks are as common an accessory as sunglasses or headphones, established mask-wearing norms likely slowed the rate of COVID-19 spread.
But it’s reasonable — if cynical — to expect that pandemics will become a more common occurrence, as climate change, antibiotic resistance, and globalization become more a part of our reality. And if that happens, it’s possible that Americans’ instincts towards self-expression and originality will lead to a real opportunity for fashion masks to flourish, unlike in Asia, where, for the most part, masks are a purely utilitarian accessory, and “fashion masks” are rare. That spirit, coupled with America’s robust fashion manufacturing capabilities and wide-range of retailers and businesses, could be meaningful for masks’ ability to become an everyday fashion accessory, even more so than in Europe, where fashion brands have largely chosen to skip out on masks and where infection rates are much more under control.
“It says something about American culture that we immediately pivot from wearing something that is functional and does the job, to wearing something that expresses my personality or that makes me look or feel good,” says Saunders. “That pivot from essential item to fashion item is something that's quite peculiar to the American market. It speaks to the American sense of individuality, but also entrepreneurialism.”
In these six months of mixed messaging, masks — even without bells and whistles (or rhinestones and beaded strawberries) — have clearly communicated a whole catalog of expressions: They’ve signaled political beliefs, tastes and preferences, as well as how neighborly, considerate, and kind their wearer is. The fact that a single garment can convey all of that is unusual, unprecedented, and unbearably heavy. These are qualities that uniquely define our commitments to one other in 2020
If anything is up for that task, it’s face masks — worn in sickness, and hopefully, in health.