Last week, luxury fashion houses Saint Laurent and Balenciaga announced that their workshops in France would be given over to the production of surgical face masks, instead of clothes, while parent company Kering Group will donate an additional three million masks to the French healthcare system.
Meanwhile Gucci, also part of the Kering stable, has announced that it aims to produce one million face masks in the coming days for Italian health services, while Mango has declared its intention to donate up to two million to hospitals in Spain, where it is based.
However, medical-grade masks aside, decorative, albeit medically ineffectual, face coverings, too, are popping up on social feeds and in online stores, sparking both interest and controversy.
Decorative face masks are not a new trend
Of course, masks were being worn long before the outbreak of Covid-19 – in cities with air pollution, by activists hiding their faces during rallies and by many healthy citizens of East Asia in crowded places and on public transport.
Face masks have historically been seen on fashion runways, too. For spring / summer 2015, Chinese designer Masha Ma incorporated Swarovski crystal-studded renditions into her collection at Paris Fashion Week, and in 2016, Indian fashion designer Manish Arora collaborated with the California fashion house Vogmask. Celebrities have been instrumental in driving demand for face masks for aesthetic purposes.
Ariana Grande's 2019 Sweetener tour merchandise included pink and black face masks with the words "Thank U, Next", the title of her hit song, scrawled across them in graffiti-style font. At the Grammys this year, Billie Eilish donned a head-to-toe Gucci look that included gloves and a Gucci-logo-covered mesh face mask. Meanwhile some guests at this month's Paris Fashion Week sported Chanel-branded face coverings.
The WHO states masks should only be worn in some cases
As far as the current pandemic is concerned, the World Health Organisation has stated that when it comes to the coronavirus, masks only need to be worn by those who are infected and those taking care of people who are infected. However, with the virus having sparked panic-buying and hoarding, face masks have landed on the shopping lists of consumers worldwide.
On March 15, Forbes noted in an Instagram post: “Luxury retail is expected to take a $33 to $44 billion hit this year as the wealthy stay away from shops. Many fear contagion in the retail space, while others see little point in buying things like fashion or jewellery if there is no opportunity to show them off.
“The exception to the luxury rule is, bizarrely, fashionable face masks. Shoppers are now signing up to join waiting lists for certain multi-layer masks.”
The bizarreness of the trend aside, sites such as Ellessco and Vogmask, which sell affordable filtration and respiratory masks in leopard, floral and paisley prints, are both currently out of stock of face masks.
Online marketplace Etsy, meanwhile, contains more than 800 search results for “face mask”, with many tagged with a “bestseller” ribbon. From images of Minnie Mouse to reindeer and roses, the options are seemingly endless for customers seeking peppy prints and patterns that offer no protection whatsoever.
Luxury face masks: the next big thing?
Luxury designers, too, are jumping on the mask bandwagon. French fashion designer Marine Serre launched the Marine Serre X Airinum Urban Air Mask 2.0. Priced at $295 (Dh1,085), the black jersey mask is fitted with air filters and crescent Moon motifs.
Despite the hefty price for a garment that essentially offers no real protection, the collaboration swiftly sold out within weeks of launching, as did Swedish brand Airinum’s regular range of patterned respiratory masks – its website directs customers to sign up to a waiting list, with new stock expected to arrive in July.
Tala Alamuddin, sister of human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, also released a range of face masks through her fashion label Tala, with proceeds going to the Red Cross. The masks, which retail for about Dh120, come in an assortment of camouflage, leopard and denim designs, with upbeat names such as punk pink camo and cool cat blue.
The designer is a resident of Singapore, where face masks are a common sight, but was criticised by some for trying to cash in on a world pandemic. In her defence, Alamuddin said: “Part of Tala brand’s mission is to make a difference wherever we can … through fashion. Masks are a staple in Asian households, and used regularly for colds, pollution and cosmetic recovery.”
The trend has also garnered local traction. Emirati graphic and fashion designer Fatma Al Mulla exhibited her T-shirts and tech accessories at the Middle East Film and Comic Con earlier this month, where she also introduced face masks with colourful patterns infused with Arabic pop culture, such as her trademark din oud bottle print, and a monochrome striped version with a big smiley face in the centre.
Others come with embellishments, such as pearls and layered floral motifs in purple, pink, orange and green hues. “They aren’t medical masks – they are more of a fun fashion statement,” she says. “The material is soft and comfortable.”
Whether you view decorative masks as acceptable or excessive, there seems to be a psychological element at play. Like collecting signatures on a plaster cast or doodling on it to make it your own, designs that stand out can help boost the morale of those who are healthy but troubled by all the uncertainty.