Many of our everyday fashion staples that we take for granted were once rooted in utility. Jeans were designed as a solution to miners’ needs for durable work-wear. Pants were adopted by women when they entered the workforce in WW1. And the invention of casual sportswear coincided with the new fast-paced lifestyles of Americans in the 1970s. So while face masks are now being adopted to reduce the spread of COVID-19, they’re quickly becoming an everyday fashion accessory here to stay.
Of course, this isn’t to trivialize the global pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic is not an excuse for a fashion show, but as we lose our ability to communicate through smiles and visual cues with most of our face covered up, we have to come up with alternative ways of making a first impression. Fashion has always been a platform for self-expression. As face masks are quickly becoming a part of our daily routine, many of us are choosing to showcase our individual style through them.
The CDC has recommended that everyone covers their nose and mouth when leaving the house. As the surgical N95 masks are in short supply, ordinary citizens should instead opt for handmade masks. It’s important to note that these masks are not medical-grade, and do not fully protect you from the virus. They can, however, help reduce the spread of the virus by those who are asymptomatic and offer incremental protection against liquid particles. Overall, a mask is better than no mask, and purchasing one provides struggling fashion businesses with an alternative stream of revenue.
Many brands – both small businesses and established labels alike – are rallying to make face masks accessible and have a “buy one, donate one” policy. Others are re-purposing left-over materials in an attempt to reduce waste and up-cycle. For example, Russian designer, renown for her high tech fabrics Lena Karnauhova this time around picked a simple organic linen in order to make masks capable of holding up to a number of laundry cycles, and be as close to a natural feeling as possible. Below are some of the most creative face masks bursting onto the new marketplace.
Embellished couture masks might not seem the most practical of options, but for up-and-coming label Voravaj Bangkok, “couture is life”. Designer Voravaj Varazatiravatt was experimenting with facemasks long before the outbreak of Covid-19, as Bangkok’s air pollution has turned facemasks into a wardrobe staple. In fact, it was his sighting of a woman wearing a beautiful dress with a medical mask that inspired him to think outside the box. “It was such a strong contrast that it became my starting point,” he said. Each couture mask features intricate crystal and bead embellishments that take between 36 – 84 hours to handcraft. The masks were not originally intended for sale. Instead he wants to create a fun and unique campaign that not only encourages people to self-protect with flair, but also inspires others to turn their talents into creativity during lockdown.
Slow-fashion, size-inclusive label K.S. Garner is a small Phoenix-based brand that sells made-to-order products in an attempt to reduce waste and ensure a custom fit for everyone. Designer Kelsey Garner has created face masks from fun fabrics featuring butterflies, strawberries and cow print that embody the youthful spirit of her brand. “Masks are functional and serve a utility similar to eyeglasses,” said Kelsey. “And just like eyeglasses, you might wear these masks every day and we wanted to offer a little personality and style with their safety.” For every 2-pack bought, a 2-pack will be donated to a cause in need. The first 500 mask donations were made to frontline workers at St. Joes Hospital, Banner University’s Medical Center, Abbott Northwestern Hospital Minneapolis and Phoenix fire stations. The second round of donations will be made to homeless shelters in Phoenix.
Designer Michelle Olomojobi started Llulo after she went shopping for a crop top and failed to find anything that reflected her African heritage. Today Llulo works with local artisans in Nigeria to craft ethically made pieces inspired by traditional Ankara textiles. Olomojobi is passionate about using her brand to create jobs and help women in Nigeria start their own businesses, and is now producing face masks where 10% of the proceeds will be donated to local nonprofits.
Sustainable label Collina Strada is turning deadstock material from past collections into beautiful, maximalist masks. With contrasting patterns and delicate bows, these masks echo the brand’s mission to be a platform of self-expression and exude a much-needed sense of joy during this dark time. Although these masks are on the pricier side, for every mask purchased, five will be donated to healthcare workers in New York City.
Big Dog Art Department is a small, independent artist-owned company run by husband and wife duo Mike and Sam McKennedy. Adorned with funky smiley faces and quirky phrases like “Have a nice dystopia” and “Not today death”, their masks offer some light-hearted comedic relief and remind us that even in times of crisis, there are reasons to laugh. “We didn’t want to create something over-priced or self-important; we priced them the same as we would a bandana and did some designs that made us smile,” he said. While trying to keep their small business afloat, the couple is also donating 10% of the proceeds to One Fair Wage Emergency Workers Fund, an organization that assists laid-off service industry workers.
Kosovo-born, NYC-based designer Lirika Matoshi is crafting whimsical face masks that channel the effortless romance of her namesake brand. Choose from masks adorned with beaded strawberries, embroidered daises or rainbow print. 100% of the proceeds go towards charities in Kosovo. The designer reported on her Instagram page that she had raised over $23 000 in just four hours, and will be restocking the now sold-out masks as soon as possible.
Akese Stylelines is a Chicago-based label run by designer Jennifer Akese-Burney, who was born and raised in Ghana. Her creations put a modern twist on the traditional African Ankara, which is characterized by vibrant colors and patterns. Her face masks are made from the same bold, exuberant prints, and can be paired with a matching headwrap or neckpiece. Each mask is made from 100% cotton fabric and is natural, breathable, and reusable. According to Akese-Burney, she wanted to be a part of the solution, and allow her customers to be protected without sacrificing style. “The Akese Stylelines woman is a Queen. She is bold, sophisticated, and commands attention wherever she finds herself, even in a pandemic like this,” said Akese-Burney. In line with the brand’s mission to empower women through self-expression, her masks are called Akese Power Masks.
There’s an eerie component to the way face masks hide our facial expressions and prevent us from communicating through positive visual clues. That’s why Alia Meagan, founder of Courtyard LA, wanted to make fun face masks that allow the wearer to show off their personality. “I started thinking about our culture and how I could add a slight bit of normalcy to people’s lives that are anything but normal right now,” she said. “Knowing I will lighten someone’s mood and the strangers they encounter during a pandemic will be forever one of my life’s greatest achievements.” All masks are made from deadstock vintage material, featuring beautiful silks and lace ties. Meagan wanted to be a part of the solution after being an early Coronavirus patient herself. “We may not be able to provide a CDC level suit but we can most definitely make products to help create a first defense when people go about their day,” she said.
African-based label Zimbowties believe in using fashion to empower their community, working with 8 artisans in Zimbabwe who handmake one-of-a-kind bowties from upcycled fabric offcuts. Their commitment to ethical fashion is not just environmental; they also pay their artists five times the minimum wage. They have since expanded into face masks, using a variety of vibrant African prints to protect their fellow citizens. They’re also using their masks to raise awareness about COVID-19 in the small city of Mutare, where they are based. Click here to make fabric or monetary donations and help Zimbowties to continue combatting the spread.
Gender-neutral lifestyle brand Colty designs has added an extra product to their line of leather goods; facemasks. For every mask purchased, one mask will be donated to LGBTQ+ centers in Portland. Available in black mesh, black rib, sparkled rib, blue denim or cow print, each mask can be purchased with a matching jockstrap.
LA-based abstract expressionist artist Rachel T Harris believes in using her art to challenge the barriers of the traditional art industry hierarchy by inviting the viewer inside her artistic process. Today, she’s using it to fight the spread of COVID-19. Her mission was two-fold; to help laborers she has worked with in the past who are struggling financially, while repurposing the enormous amounts of leftover fabric she has at her disposal. “Giving these talented laborers and artisans an opportunity to have income during this time to produce something in enormous demand, masks, from what was considered “waste”, was an obvious move— a true win-win,” she said. Made from dyed canvas and silkscreen painted fabric, each mask is quite literally a work of art. 25% of sales are being donated to the WHO’ Covid-19 Response Fund. Visit her website RTH PAINT to see more of her work.
Founded in Copenhagen by Emilie Helmstedt, HELMSTEDT is an ethical fashion label dedicated to merging fashion, art and sustainability. All of the prints used in her designs are hand painted and feature expressive brushstrokes and vibrant colors. Using the deadstock material from her previous collections, Helmsetdt is handcrafting face masks with fun, unique prints and donating the proceeds to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.
When Adriana Sahar started her label six years ago in her parent’s garage, her mission was to create a brand that gave plus size women the confidence to stand out. Her garments are bold and outrageous, featuring wild patterns and vibrant colors that command attention. She has since expanded into face masks that can be paired with a matching bikini and glove set, made from the same fabrics that underscore the vivaciousness of the Adriana Sahar woman.
French costume designer Anne Sophie Cochevelou has joined forces with London-based photographer Anthony Lycett for a photo series that explores the way face masks can tell stories about its wearer. Cochavelou has created exquisite face masks for every day she’s been on lockdown, each reflecting a different theme. Inspired by the Spanish phrase “más que a la cara”, which literally means “more than a face”, she questions whether masks can actually be used to show identity rather than conceal it. Describing masks as “an intimate banner” or “personal flag”, Cochevelou believes they can bring another dimension to our faces much like makeup or jewelry. While these masks are purely for art, she is also selling wearable ones that are less extravagant but equally as creative.
PADI x Rash ‘R
PADIxRASHR mask COURTESY OF PADI
Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) is turning ocean waste into face masks. In partnership with eco-friendly activewear brand Rash’R, plastic bottles that once polluted the ocean are now helping ease the spread of COVID-19. The masks are available in five different designs based on different sea life like sharks, whales and manta rays. They’re also reusable and come with 5 filters.
When Zimbabwean-born designer Kuda Matiza moved to South Africa, the diversity of cultures inspired him to found his label House of Hohwa. Named after his hometown, the label celebrates African stories and channels them into fashion. Amidst the coronavirus outbreak, he has started creating facemask and gloves in vibrant African prints which can be paired with matching hats, bags and clothing. “Being safe doesn’t mean you can’t be trendy at the same time,” said Matiza. He’s also using this initiative and his Instagram platform to create awareness and educate citizens on how to stay safe.
Studio&Talia is based near St. Petersburg, Russia and had steadily gained reputation for their handmade, quality products among some of the biggest Russian celebrities on- and off- line. Their atelier was one of the first businesses to receive the official state permission to keep working during coronavirus pandemic to support the local mask production. Masks in fun geometric prints can be paired with the brand’s matching apparel for a cohesive look.
Love Jozi is a T-shirt and gift line run by Bradley Kirshenbaum and Jacques van der Watt that draws inspiration from the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. After the duo turned one of their Love Jozi Tote Bags into face masks for themselves and their six-year-old daughter, they received an overwhelmingly positive response and started making more for public sale. Each mask shows a map of different areas of the cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Part of an initiative to raise awareness about the homeless community’s struggle with the coronavirus, proceeds from each sale will be donated towards MES, a non-profit dedicated to helping South Africa’s homeless population.
Tumee Makes Masks
Tumi Seepe runs a small online business called Sophie Online with her mother Tlou Mabusela and one seamstress. When the South African government called on local vendors to help supply face masks, Seepe decided to launch a new website called Tumee Makes Masks, devoted solely to face masks. While the amount of orders she has received is overwhelming for her to make alone, it allows her to continue to support her family and her seamstress. Each mask is made from her brand’s leftover cotton fabric and comes in vibrant prints and traditional African textiles.
Known for asymmetrical cuts and a timeless aesthetic devoid of any ornamentation, Ukrainian label Juliya Kros was motivated to produce face masks after receiving numerous requests from customers. Using leftover fabric from her last two collections, designer Julia Perekrestova has released a number of face masks as part of her “Save Around” collection. In an effort to promote the public to wear protective gear, she has designed high-fashion face masks that accessorize her garments. Featuring unusual details like a zipper down the middle or mesh overlay, these masks keep the wearer safe and stylish.
By Stephan Rabimov co-authored with Adriana Georgiades for forbes.com