Among the unexpected twist and turns of 2020 is the mainstreaming of face masks in the Western part of the world. Manufacturing for medical and non-medical masks, or personal protective equipment (PPE), swept across the global industry beginning in March as companies like Prada, Mother Denim, Gucci, Citizens of Humanity and more halted regular production or shifted their resources to produce masks for COVID-19 first responders and the general public.
A series of contradicting studies and guidelines and the fragmented reopening of states and cities in the U.S. has led to debates about the effectiveness of PPE. For some, wearing or not wearing a face mask even signifies their political views. But as states with initially low numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases begin to see the contagion spread, the latest statistics serves as a reminder that PPE is part of the “new normal.”
For some, incorporating a fashion and personal element to PPE is one way to help cope with and humanize this new reality. “The average person understands that COVID-19 will be with us at least until a vaccine is developed and widely spread, so we expect to see face masks in the assortments for the next 12-18 months,” said Benjamin Ayer, founder of the new fashion trend forecasting firm Benjamin Bellwether.
Searches for non-medical face masks remain high, according to global fashion search platform Lyst. Searches increased 510 percent since the beginning of the year to the start of May. As an alternative to face masks, page views for scarves are also up when the seasonal demand for the category would normally be much lower.
“Given how quickly consumers have adopted the face mask out of necessity and how brands have responded to that by offering face masks as a new product category, we absolutely see this continuing to be a key item in collections for brands at all price points, from fast-fashion retailers to independent brands to luxury designers,” said Hallie Spradlin, Fashion Snoops, accessories director.
From sports and entertainment licensing opportunities, to masks that coordinate with signature prints or feature brands’ patented colors (here’s looking at you, Tiffany & Co. and Christian Louboutin), masks have opened a new realm of creative branding opportunities for fashion. And for the time being, the entry to play is fairly low.
Any company that makes tees can make masks, said Sharon Graubard, Mintmoda founder and creative director. The product, she said, is an easy extension of brands like Los Angeles Apparel, which has demonstrated such versatility with its 3-pack of comfortable cotton jersey masks. Meanwhile, bra manufacturers are well positioned because of their technical expertise and their experimental approach to fabric and construction, she said.
In the short term, Ayer said nearly all categories and markets are poised to operate a profitable face-mask business. “It’s simple supply and demand, and customers are becoming more and more okay with paying money for face masks they can reuse,” Ayer said.
But the category will likely evolve by companies spending more time on “alpha-sizing for better fits,” developing styles for children and experimenting with constructions for a more polished look, he said.
And fashion brands also have to take some time to find to hone their point of view in this category. While initial shipments of PPE were created under urgency, consumers will expect PPE with higher degrees of comfort, protection and aesthetics—qualities that guide their other fashion purchases.
“Brands should create products with their specific customer in mind whether it’s from a color or material perspective,” Spradlin said. “Individuals still want to express themselves as they would with any choices they make in apparel or accessories, so [consider] trends like bold colors, positive messages, or prints and patterns that reflect each brand’s target consumer.”
There is a very high chance that face masks will become a new status symbol in the luxury streetwear market.
Even before the pandemic, “elaborate face masks” were part of the street-style looks showing up at fashion weeks, Ayer noted, and influential Gen Zers like pop star Billie Eilish sported designer masks to high-profile events, like the custom crystal-embellished Gucci version she wore to the 2020 Grammys.
Fashion Snoops was tracking masks prior to the pandemic as a fashion item created by luxury streetwear brands like Gucci and Marine Serre. Off-White has been selling them in its collections for a few seasons. Many more brands will start to design collections focused on the item, Spradlin said.
“We’ve already started to see trendy brands like Collina Strada offer more fashion-focused face masks, turning them into artful creations as an extension of their brands and a new, and often more accessible, category for expression,” she added.
Just as the hybrid luxury streetwear category latched onto sneakers, belt bags and denim to draw a younger consumer demographic, experts see face masks as another entry point ‘It’ item. The novelty aspect of designer PPE also makes it ripe for another trend borrowed from streetwear: coveted collaborations.
“The OG street style consumer has had a mask in their fashion vernacular for a few years, and these brands are really influential in terms of where people’s discretionary income goes,” Ayer said.
Luxury brands, however, will have to toe a delicate line about price point.
“You can no longer justify charging a huge amount of money for a face mask—at least for now—so when you add in the additional marketing dollars and other costs to do a collaboration, you probably wouldn’t margin out at the end of the day,” Ayer said.
Instead, he said, we may see one brand partner with another to offload excess fabric and call it a collaboration in the marketing, which could be a creative way to help each other out. “We’ve seen some artists teaming up with brands to decorate the masks, but I think that’s temporary or at least will be on a much smaller scale compared to powerhouse brand match-ups,” he added.
Though brands may have to “save face” by selling masks at reasonable price points, the resale market is proving to be another story. From March to May, Glossy reported that StockX’s face mask sales increased by 210 percent and mask prices were up 282 percent.
An Off-White mask featuring the brand’s signature arrow design, which originally retailed for $100, sold for $466 on the resale platform.
“With demand skyrocketing as face masks become a necessity around the world, the most wanted styles are now listed for many times their original price on resale platforms. And as key styles become harder to get, it only makes them more desirable,” Lyst stated.
The mask wardrobe
As cities reopen and people begin to resume their work and social lives, forecasters are beginning to see how masks will play a part in their head-to-toe outfits. Some people are coordinating masks with their ensembles, Graubard said, by pairing a camouflage mask with a camouflage jacket, or a white eyelet lace mask worn with a vintage sundress.
“I’ve also seen several bedazzled masks both on social media and on girls downtown, making the mask into an expressive, fun component of getting dressed,” she said.
Women’s designers are also developing masks that coordinate with the rest of their product line. Alice & Olivia offers a $10 cotton mask with its signature Stace Face print. Betsey Johnson packages pink-and-black floral face masks with a matching headband. Instagram-famous brand LoveShackFancy adapted its shabby-chic aesthetic to a $20 mixed-print floral covering.
On the higher end, Prabal Gurung elevated masks with a $55 floral jacquard fabric. Erdem offers a floral cotton poplin mask for $65 that complements the rest of the brand’s moody florals. And KES is currently accepting pre-orders for its Dreamer mask, a $55 silk face covering that fastens with extra-long silk ribbons that can be tied as a long scarf or into a large bow.
Like other accessories with functional roots that have since become fashion statements, like footwear and bags, Kelly Helfman, president of WWDMAGIC and Project Women’s, said she anticipates consumers wanting a full wardrobe of PPE. In a webinar with Fashion Snoops, Helfman said consumers may want a face covering for casual occasions and another for going out in the evening.
There’s room for hand sanitizer accessories, too, she said. Helfman mused over the idea of developing a chic holder for mini hand sanitizers—something that women would be proud to clip onto their handbag. Adding a fashion element to products, she noted, brings consumers a sense of joy that the pandemic has depleted from many aspects of day-to-day life.
“Interestingly, many masks seem to lean toward that homespun aesthetic, perhaps because early on there were all those make-it-yourself patterns available online, and lots of Etsy sellers offering DIY versions in ginghams and country florals,” Graubard said.
“In cities, there’s something about the anonymity of the mask that is appealing—it’s almost like wearing dark glasses.”
Not all consumers, however, will want to emphasize this protective accessory. A portion of the consumer base will favor solid colors, or versatile styles that can be worn as a neckerchief or an impromptu mask.
Even though street vendors are selling masks across New York City, in Graubard’s neighborhood in the East Village, many people are choosing to wear basic blue disposable masks or classic bandanas tied over the mouth and nose. “Both say, ‘I’m not trying too hard,’” she quipped.
“I think the big opportunities are masks that would be built-in to garments, like a turtleneck that pulls over the nose and mouth, or a beanie with a panel that pulls down, or a hood with panel,” Graubard said. “In cities, there’s something about the anonymity of the mask that is appealing—it’s almost like wearing dark glasses.”
The biggest winners, Ayer added, will be brands that can make a face mask look good and perform as well as the less aesthetically pleasing versions with filters and nose clips.
“Cloth masks are great, but they don’t offer a huge amount of perceived protection,” he said. “This perception of effectiveness versus aesthetic is where brands need to look for the value to be successful at this product category.”
Manufactures’ swift pivot to PPE proves that the category can be any brand’s game. However, due to the necessity of breathable and durable materials for face masks, experts said one category in particular may have an upper hand.
“Mask production is a natural for activewear companies, many of whom were already making specialty masks for runners and other participants of outdoor sports,” Graubard said. “I think the big opportunity is in more sleek, high-performance versions, in breathable antimicrobial or antiviral materials.”
Several brands have already entered the space. Adidas sells a 3-pack of reusable face masks made recycled polyester. New Balance’s NB Face Mask v3 aims for comfort and fit featuring a lightweight 3-layer construction, moldable nose piece and stretch ear loops. Outdoor Voices emphasizes the breathability of its washable masks made with Bluesign-approved fabrics.
These brands have a jump start on performance fabrics, and if the number of antimicrobial technologies that have entered the supply chain since the pandemic indicates anything, it is that performance is on the minds of both designers and consumers.
“Material innovation is key for face masks as a way to integrate both protective elements and health benefits,” Spradlin said. “Some materials we’ve been tracking include antimicrobial fabrics like bamboo-derived viscose and disinfectant finishes, as well as probiotic-infused materials for immunity support.”
Reusable masks should also have “easy-care quick-drying” properties, Graubard said, adding that there is a need for fabrics that wick moisture and fabrics that cool.
Mask-wearing has also given rise to a new trove of skincare woes, a.k.a. “maskne.” The heat and moisture that masks trap against the face, particularly during humid summer months, can result in breakouts and other skin irritations. The problem doesn’t disappear in colder months either, as masks can rub against and irritate dry skin.
Trendalytics reported that during the month of May searches for “maskne” were up 1,943 percent compared to the year prior as people search for a solution. As a result, Bakuchiol, a natural alternative to retinol, is experiencing high search volumes and increased social buzz, while searches for niacinamide, which is known for its ability to reduce inflammation and redness, are on the rise.
While the common recommendations to prevent “maskne” is face washing and opting for a dye-free cotton mask, Graubard pointed out that cosmetic companies have an opportunity to innovate here. “I can imagine fabrics that have moisturizing or other skin-nourishing properties. After all, it is a piece of fabric against your skin, it may as well have some cosmetic or wellness benefits,” she said.
Lifestyle brands with a performance component can make a strong push into the PPE category, too. “Imagine if Lululemon or Rhone came out with a face mask that is performance, has breathable layers and technology built into it,” Ayer said. “Or at Uniqlo, you can grab your Heattech leggings and an Airism face mask during checkout.”
Eventually, Ayer said PPE will become like any product category a brand is looking to include in its assortment—it has to make sense for the brand to offer it.
The product category also lends itself well to another burgeoning trend: upcycling. One trend that Fashion Snoops has seen since the beginning of this pandemic outbreak, Spradlin said, has been brands creating face masks from deadstock or material scraps from their own production.
This resourceful approach has been employed by brands like Reformation, Mother Denim and Joe’s Jeans. This strategic mask production, she noted, positions any apparel company to have an opportunity to meet the demands of the moment by introducing this new product category without immediately having to invest in new resources while at the same time reducing waste.
A Chinese designer named Zhijun Wang, Graubard noted, has been creating functional pollution masks, all upcycled from high-end sneakers. “His techno designs could inspire a whole new direction in masks, making them as desirable as the latest sneakers for streetwear looks,” she said.
“It would be great if we can continue using face masks as a way to highlight sustainability and build it into the circular economy models,” Ayer said, adding that upcycled masks are one solution for garments at the end of their life cycle.
“It would be cool to see brands utilize recycled fabrics or have the old clothing from rental websites go back into the fashion cycle in a way like this, where garments can just be cleaned and cut up for cloth masks,” he said.
Face coverings are another vessel for self-expression—perhaps even the new statement tee, Graubard mused. In the current polarizing climate in the U.S.—with people taking a staunch stance on social and political topics ranging from climate change and immigration, to police reform and gun control, masks have the potential to deliver silent yet powerful messages.
Ayer pointed out that face masks will become part of the bigger ‘protest culture’ influence on fashion—the same way that he expects to see more camouflage prints and aggressive footwear like Doc Martens on the runway in the coming seasons.
“People will use the face mask as a symbol of how a government may have failed them, to show solidarity with healthcare workers, or as silent protest to this event that we all shared together,” he said.
Protesters at Black Lives Matter rallies have written poignant calls for action and statements about racism and police brutality on masks. The Black Lives Matter organization currently sells $15 masks with the phrases “justice” and “freedom” through its e-commerce store.
As the U.S. presidential election nears, masks have the potential to serve as the new campaign pin or red hat. A $20 mask that simply states “Biden” is among the infant onesies and Pride tees available for sale on former Vice President, and presumptive Democratic challenger, Joe Biden’s official campaign website.
The same cannot be said for the official store for the Trump-Pence website, however, that may be a merchandising reflection of the candidates’ stance on the protective coverings. Both politicians have rarely been seen wearing PPE since the start of the global pandemic.
Wearing masks has been a reality in Asia for close to a decade. It is a habit, Spradlin noted, that was driven out of a public health necessity rather than as a “trendy” item.
“The way that face masks are such a normal and accepted part of Eastern cultures is something that I think brands have to look at from a marketing perspective and retailers for brand alignment,” she said.
As stores open up, Ayer said he anticipates seeing masks at checkout lines and on mannequins. He also expects U.S. consumers to wear masks during flu seasons, entrenching PPE as a seasonal staple for brands and retailers.
“I think a lot of people are worried about the second wave of the virus in a few months,” he said. “If the retailers have them in their stores when the brick-and-mortars open back up, a customer will grab a couple during checkout without thinking about it.”
And if there are lessons to be learned about how brands and consumers approach masks in China, it is “the matter-of-factness” with which they are worn, Graubard said.
“It’s an everyday hygiene choice that may catch on globally,” she said. “Even after COVID-19 is under control, people may more protect themselves and be more respectful of others when wearing masks.”