Despite the evidence, few of us saw the face mask boom coming. Fabric face masks are this season’s most controversial accessory. They are the first accessory to bridge the gap between fashion item and medical necessity. But are they here to stay?
Etsy sellers sold more than 12 million face masks during April alone, leading to $133 million in sales revenue. In Eastern countries such as Vietnam, Japan and China, face masks have been commonplace for years already. People wore them to protect others when they had minor illnesses such as colds or flu.
Etsy sellers sold more than 12 million face masks during April alone, leading to $133 million in sales revenue.
WWD reports that in many Asian countries, wearing a face mask is “as routine as putting on a pair of shoes, widely considered a civic duty to protect others.” In Berlin, face masks are mandatory on public transportation, as well as in the broad majority of retail stores. The United States has, for many reasons, been recalcitrant to adopt regulations making face masks mandatory.
But the stakes have got higher as the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the world and now more than half of state governments in the U.S. require citizens to wear facial coverings while in public.
The Boom and the Pushback
Although N95 masks are the most effective at preventing individuals from contracting coronavirus, they aren’t recommended by the FDA for use by the general public. Many nurses, doctors, and medical personnel still don’t have the proper PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to protect themselves and their families from pathogen spread, so it’s widely frowned upon for non-immune compromised individuals to buy N95 masks for personal use.
Single-use face masks may not have a direct negative impact on critical medical personnel, but they do pose a threat to the environment and they are quickly becoming a new type of health hazard as people dump their used masks and gloves on the street.
Fortunately, PPE and disposable masks aren’t the only two options for those hoping to protect themselves from airborne pathogens. Nobel prize-winning virologist, Harold Varmus, found that placing a layer of cloth in front of someone’s face stops 99 percent of droplets from spreading.
Individual mask makers living everywhere from Vietnam to Hollywood, California are hunkering down and churning out customized masks for the masses. Florence Ryza is one of these artisans. She produced high-end duvet covers, decorative pillows, and window panels for many years before the Covid-19 outbreak. She was an experienced senior designer at bedding at a firm in Southern California but had never previously produced masks or sold goods on Etsy. But Ryza says that face masks now comprise 95 percent of her business’s sales.
“My entire customer base closed at the onset of the pandemic, so when Etsy reached out for masks to pretty much to anyone with a sewing machine, I decided to answer the call. I thought it would be helpful and I also needed a way to keep myself and two other staff members employed. Although I completely understand the need for government assistance, if there was any way to stay off the Fed’s payroll, I was going to try it.”
And try it she did. Ryza now runs a five-star customized cloth mask store on Etsy and that has sold over 2,000 masks to date. Her masks range in price from $9 to $35 a pop, depending on whether they’re simple cloth masks or if they have customized embroidery.
A Nation of the Cloth
In a time when clothing sales are down, even mass manufacturers have resorted to mask production to keep their business relevant while the rest of the world is emerging slowly from shutdown. And cloth masks aren’t only the most “woke” option… they’re also a way for consumers to express their personal sense of style in a dismal situation. Apparel importers have also gotten into the mask business, and fashion brands such as Rag and Bone and Reformation are now producing and selling on-trend face masks alongside (and sometimes matching) their regular inventory. Vogue is calling face masks the “breakout trend of the summer.”
Face masks customized with embroidery, amusing sayings, or graphic prints can help consumers express their personality, and they’re growing in both popularity and originality as the pandemic wears on. But all masks aren’t created equal. Any artisan whose business explodes in a short timeframe will tell you that customization isn’t always an easy thing to offer at scale and masks are no different.
“For the everyday masks,” Ryza says, “scaling my business quickly hasn’t been difficult. I’m used to mass production, so making the changeover wasn’t tough. The high-end masks are a little different though,” she adds, “as each of those has to be hand-cut with the pattern placed in exactly the right position on the fabric to provide the perfect placement of embroidery design on the mask. And there is a tremendous amount of waste.”
Ryza chalks the customized mask boom up to customers’ willingness to seek joy during a turbulent moment in history. “At a time when everything is scary and somewhat depressing, it’s nice to have something that still makes you feel special and beautiful.”
Additional Considerations for the Face Mask Trend
Yet style isn’t the only factor customers take into consideration when they look into making a face mask purchase. Face masks are arguably the most utilitarian must-have accessory of the era––performance factors such as moisture protection, comfort, breathability, fit, and filtration (including whether they include a pouch for disposable filters) are all things some customers look for when evaluating a potential mask purchase. Brands such as Outdoor Research have answered the call by focusing more on function rather than fashion when making face masks for the athletic set.
In the city of San Diego, we recently received word that masks were only mandatory for workers on the clock, or those who would be within six feet of other people. At the same time, residents living two hours away in LA received word that masks were mandatory for all Angelinos outside of their own homes. Regulations vary significantly by county and as some states begin to reopen and regulations loosen, others are enforcing more strict face mask regulations in hopes of preventing a “second wave” of coronavirus cases.
So, what does this mean for the face mask sales? As businesses continue to reopen, more may follow in Whole Foods’ footsteps by providing customers with free face masks at the door.
“Unfortunately, until there’s a vaccine or cure, we are in it for the long haul on masks,” says Ryza.
“However, I believe they will become inexpensively readily available everywhere — major retailers, drug stores, gas stations, grocery stores, etc. So, for me, probably the only ones that will continue will most likely be the special ones. Until of course, someone else copies the idea or we develop herd immunity.”