Are face masks the new fashion accessory?

Fashion brands have scrambled to produce their own versions of the now ubiquitous face covering, but is it ethical to profit from a pandemic – and will face masks be commonplace even in a post-Covid-19 world?

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At a makeshift table surrounded by the bare concrete walls of his workshop in Gaza City, Nabil Saber Abu Ghabin, 60, uses his ancient sewing machine to transform a piece of checkered cloth into protective face masks.

From keffiyeh to face masks

While the tailor would normally use the cotton fabric to craft traditional Palestinian keffiyeh, or headdresses, he, like many others around the world, has had to rethink his operations. And so the keffiyeh is being reconfigured into a potentially life-saving accessory and then shipped off to buyers in Europe.

epa08465898 A man puts on a protective face mask made by Nabil Saber Abu Ghabin with the checkered cotton cloth he normally uses to make the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh at his workshop in Gaza City, 04 June 2020. The 60-year-old tailor has reoriented his production to manufacture face masks that are exported to Europe, where they are used for protection against infection with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes the pandemic COVID-19 disease.  EPA/MOHAMMED SABER
In Gaza, tailor Nabil Saber Abu Ghabin is transforming checkered cloth into protective face masks. Courtesy EPA

Across the globe – from the manufacturing facilities of the world's biggest fashion brands to the ateliers of independent tailors and the kitchen tables that serve as a work space for the smallest of start-ups – a similar shift is taking place.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," Plato famously wrote, and as the coronavirus pandemic has manifested itself in store closures, disrupted supply lines, dampened consumer demand and an accumulation of old stock, the fashion industry has had to go in search of new revenue streams.

Men wearing face masks walk with takeaway food past a Hermes store at a shopping centre after the extended Lunar New Year holiday caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak, in Beijing's central business district, China February 10, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer   NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
Fashion brands around the world experienced closures and disrupted supply chains. Reuters    

Early on in the pandemic, the face mask emerged as a symbol of our new reality. It was rendered in street art and became part of the collective consciousness – the one tangible thing that we could insert between ourselves and a diseased world.

In the absence of a drug or vaccine, the face mask has taken on almost talismanic qualities, offering a sense of control, however slight, in a situation that we have no control over.

For the past six months, there has been a play-by-play of Covid-19 around the world, and people might just be starting to realise the emotional and psychological trauma they may have endured

“For the past six months, there has been a play-by-play of Covid-19 around the world, and people might just be starting to realise the emotional and psychological trauma they may have endured as a result of around-the-clock news coverage of the pandemic,” notes Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of Lighthouse Arabia in Dubai. “So, in addition to people feeling like they are following precautionary measures, they will also be getting psychological safety from the face mask. The mask will serve as a transitional object for them to feel safe to go back out into the world again.”

A 'must-have' accessory

Almost overnight, they became a must-have, in the most literal sense: a potentially life-saving accessory that was also, in many countries around the world, including the UAE, government mandated.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: N/A: Photo Project. Artist Maitha Demithan has her work show all over Dubai to encourage people to stay at home. Thursday, April 15th, 2020. Internet City on Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Maitha Demithan’s artworks on Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Kim Kardashian promptly launched her non-medical Skims version in a palette of nudes, and they sold out within hours. Bane-inspired masks became an Etsy bestseller. Disney introduced reusable masks, emblazoned with our favourite Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel characters, including Hulk, Minnie and Mickey Mouse. Off-White's $95 (Dh348) Arrow Logo Face Mask become one of the most coveted items on the Internet, and also promptly sold out, fetching up to three times its original price on resale sites.

It is worth noting that brands such as Off-White and Bape had a head start. Because of their popularity with consumers in Asia, where the accessory has been commonplace since the outbreak of Sars in 2003, both brands had been making fashion-friendly masks long before Covid-19 hit.

While the World Health Organisation was initially reticent about advocating the wearing of masks in public – because of limited evidence confirming their ability to protect wearers from Covid-19, but also to avoid a global run on masks, leading to a shortage of the medical grade versions much-needed by health workers – on Friday, June 5, the health body officially revised its advice.

It is now urging people to wear masks in situations where physical distancing may be hard: on public transport, in grocery stores, at work, at social gatherings and in closed settings, including schools.

A mask alone cannot protect you from Covid-19

Nonetheless, WHO has been quick to highlight that masks cannot be relied upon in isolation. "A mask alone cannot protect you from Covid-19. It must be combined with protective measures, including maintaining at least one metre distance from others and washing your hands frequently."

There is the worry that masks give wearers an unrealistic sense of security, making them less likely to adhere to other safety measures. "There've been some concerns they could have a negative effect – they might give people a false sense of security," confirms Dr Andrew Freedman, an infectious diseases specialist at the School of Medicine at Cardiff University in the UK. "They might think if they wear a mask, they don't have to keep their distance."

There are also ethical considerations around whether fashion brands should be capitalising on the fears wrought by a health crisis – and whether something that is meant to protect against a deadly disease should be reduced to a fashion statement.

It might feel opportunistic, but it is also a simple case of supply and demand. The longer we wear face masks, the more likely that we are going to be looking for options that are more comfortable, more personalised and more expressive.

Masks with a cause

With environmental concerns about the waste generated by disposable masks, reusable options also present an attractive alternative. And since front-line health workers are more in need of the medical-grade versions than we are on our sporadic trips to the supermarket, it makes sense to invest in a comfortable, non-medical, washable face mask, while also showing support to a young designer trying to stay afloat.

A face masks by homegrown brand Aina Dubai. Courtesy Aina Dubai
A face masks by homegrown brand Aina Dubai. Courtesy Aina Dubai

One such designer is Sidrah Zahid, founder of Aina Dubai, a home-grown fashion brand specialising in products featuring witty phrases and embroidery. She has now applied those signatures to a line of cotton face masks featuring slogans such as "Halla walla", "The new lipstick", "Can't touch this" and "Swag". Customised options featuring initials or other messages can also be made to order.

10 per cent of proceeds from each Aina Dubai mask go to charity. Courtesy Aina Dubai
10 per cent of proceeds from each Aina Dubai mask go to charity. Courtesy Aina Dubai

"I realised quite early during the initial lockdown that masks were going to become a part of our daily lives and something we would be wearing every time we stepped out of the house," Zahid explains. "I feel that medical masks aren't really cost-effective and it isn't feasible to keep buying boxes of them. Therefore, if a cotton, non-medical, reusable and good-looking mask can do the job, then why not?

“I did a lot of research before I decided to go ahead with the masks and found that pure cotton masks – the cotton being 200 thread count – that are at least two to three layers, are actually quite protective and are being used worldwide. As long as they are washed every day and used hygienically, with the right protocols, they can in fact keep you protected. Having said that, by no means do I claim that they are more protective than medical masks.”

Like many other brands that have launched face masks around the world, Zahid was eager to introduce a humanitarian element to the initiative. "I really wanted to do something to give back to the community and help the underprivileged during this difficult time. Therefore, I decided to donate 10 per cent of the proceeds from each mask sale to charity, for people in need of food and hygiene products in various parts of Dubai, who aren't able to make ends meet."

In Beirut, furniture brand Bokja is adopting a similar tact. Famous for pieces that revive and celebrate regional textiles, the company's founders decided to use its craftspeople and bold fabrics to create reversible silk face masks for front-line workers at medical centres in Beirut. "Our intention was to brighten their days and show our gratitude for their risky work," says a spokesperson for the brand.

Face masks by Bokja. Courtesy Bokja
Face masks by Bokja. Courtesy Bokja

The initiative has since been expanded so that Bokja now sells its one-of-a-kind masks to consumers, with proceeds donated directly to the nursing staff at designated medical centres.

While many of the face masks coming on to the market are non-medical, produced using multiple layers of fabric, predominantly cotton, others are taking the necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention-mantra one step further.

Usman Khalid, an entrepreneur from Dubai, has launched Viro Masks  washable and reusable masks that he claims will actively neutralise viruses, including Covid-19. The design was initially tested in an ISO 17025-accredited lab in the UAE, to support these claims. It uses nano silver particles, which are known to prevent DNA replication of bacteria and viruses, by attacking the structure and permeability of the cell membrane.

"Since the last Sars outbreak, technology has evolved and we have seen revolutionary nano technology that can be applied on textiles to neutralise viruses and bacteria," says Khalid.

His HeiQ Viroblock has since been tested against Covid-19 by the Peter Doherty Institute for infection and immunity in Melbourne, Australia. The research project simulated the real-life interaction of small aerosol droplets contaminating clothing. A known concentration of Sars-CoV-2 virus was placed in contact with the sample fabric for 30 minutes. The fabric treated with HeiQ Viroblock NPJ03 had no infective viruses left after 30 minutes.

Here to stay?

Just as many people across Asia continued to wear masks after the Sars crisis abated, it is likely that face masks such as Khalid's will become commonplace across the globe moving forward. We have woken up to the invisible dangers of a deadly pandemic, and it is not something that is likely to leave our collective consciousness any time soon.

People wearing face masks leave an office building after work following a new outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Beijing, China, June 29, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
People wearing face masks leave an office building in Beijing, China. Reuters

And even if it does, the as-yet-unresolved issue of climate change means that we can likely expect pollution levels to continue to rise in major cities across the globe. All those face masks we've accumulated will come in handy in that eventuality.

"Even apart from Covid-19, there are a quadrillion-quadrillion individual viruses in the world; enough to assign one million to every star in our universe but only a fraction of these infect humans," says Khalid.

People will continue to wear face masks... because it will make them feel safer as they navigate the new normal.

"There's the realisation that wearing a mask will not only protect others from you and should be worn as a civic duty, but it can actively protect the wearer against airborne viruses. Masks are here to stay for a long time. And our seasonal outbreaks of cold and other diseases will have very short lifespans."

These sentiments are shared by Dr Afridi. "I believe people will continue to wear face masks. One, because they will be asked by their governments to do so for the next many months, and two, because it will make them feel safer as they navigate the new normal."