Face masks have become an increasingly common sight on the streets of cities like New York and London in recent weeks. Though wearing them has long been the norm in Asian capitals like Tokyo and Hanoi, the mounting threat from the novel coronavirus is convincing more and more people around the globe to wear masks whenever they go outside.
A situation that necessitates constant mask-wearing may feel a dire one, but that hasn't stopped some designers from turning the simple face mask into a fashion accessory, hoping to inject some color and positivity into an otherwise sobering — perhaps even scary — item. That's been the case for masks aimed at reducing risks from airborne pollution for awhile now, and there's good reason to believe it will start to apply to masks meant to protect from Covid-19, too.
Long before this pandemic had started to truly grip the globe, masks were infiltrating the runways thanks to brands like Off-White, Marine Serre and Fendi, and being adopted as statement-making accessories by celebrities like Billie Eilish and Cardi B.
As the pandemic progresses, brands like Prada and Gucci have pivoted to making masks geared more toward medical professionals than front-row fashion week attendees. And in Britain, the British Fashion Council has teamed up with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Health and Social Care to ask designers to lend a hand with production.
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Still, it's important not to totally conflate masks as accessories with masks as medical devices. The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes that face masks cannot protect against the coronavirus when used alone, and that they are only effective if used in combination with frequent hand washing. It recommends that masks should only be worn if you have a cough or fever, or by those who are taking care of a person with a suspected coronavirus infection — an approach likely being emphasized in part because the hoarding of masks by average citizens has led to severe shortages for the medical professionals who need them more than anyone else.
However, a report in the Guardian stresses that masks do capture droplets, a key transmission route of the coronavirus, and cites studies that estimate that masks can give around fivefold protection as compared to wearing nothing over one's mouth.
Here are seven brands that have been creating masks since before "Covid-19" was common parlance. Whether they were originally designed to protect wearers from airborne pollution or something else entirely, they offer a hint of what to expect in the future as masks become more ubiquitous — and people invariably find ways to use them as a form of creative expression along the way.
Poland-based brand Lekko makes chic "anti-pollution scarves." The company was born out of a response to Poland's serious pollution problem: According to the WHO, the country has 36 of Europe's 50 most polluted towns.
"Air pollution is a huge problem that is being ignored," Lekko co-founder Adam Muszyński says via email. But standard face masks, he claims, are often uncomfortable and poor quality — not to mention unattractive.
"We looked for an idea to overcome that issue, something that improves looks and becomes part of a stylish outfit," he notes.
The brand's anti-smog scarves are made from lightweight material with a pleasant-to-touch cotton lining that includes a memory foam nose seal. But it's what's inside that really matters: a replaceable, high-quality filter, which protects the wearer from particles as small as PM0.1. According to the brand, the masks remove 95% of harmful pollutants, as well as providing protection against viruses and bacteria. The scarves also have an adjustable design, openable air inlets for easy breathing and come in a wide range of colors. Lekko is planning to eventually expand to masks outfitted with tech that allows the monitoring of air quality and breathing patterns, too.
UK-based Freka was inspired by the engineering of a gas mask to create timeless designs with effective filtration elements. Freka masks boast a "flawless fit" that combines a snug seal to the face with comfort-inducing airflow. The masks feature a four-layer filter that includes a particle filter and activated carbon fiber to ensure all air impurities are removed. This protection is strengthened with an outer wing that blocks 99% of UV rays.
"We realized that people had focused on the security of their food and water, but not on the air they are breathing," Brown says via email. "As environmentalists, we wanted to create an important tool for protecting health and stimulate a dialogue about protecting the planet of the future."
At a summer festival in the desert in 2011, the founders realized there were no stylish and highly efficient respiratory protective masks available. They designed an innovative 3D half mask, which is easy to carry and protects against airborne particles, dust, allergens, germs and odors.
But the masks also have style at their heart — Vogmask is unique in how many different designs it offers. Brown says he was inspired by contemporary art, surf culture and environmental awareness to launch masks which could appeal to everyone and "normalize mask use."
They've been proving immensely popular over the last few months, with air quality issues in India and Singapore, U.S. wildfires, bushfires in Australia and volcanic activity in the Philippines all contributing to increased sales even before the current pandemic broke out.
"Especially with poor air quality during winter temperature inversions, natural disasters, dust storms, high pollen days, increasingly toxic environments and chronic environmentally-induced challenges to health, many more people are using Vogmask to advocate for their own wellness," says Brown.
Scough scarves, which look like any designer scarf, are intended to be "fashion-forward," but they have a hidden twist. They contain an industrial-grade activated carbon filter, impregnated with silver, which protects from flu, allergens and pollutants with 99% efficiency, according to the brand's website.
Scough has launched a range of designs from bandanas to infinity scarves, and even makes scarves designed specifically for children. Each includes a pocket at the front for the filter, which lasts for 90 days. Customers can then opt in to a subscription service to have the filters replaced automatically.
Tecmask (short for "total environment care mask"), based in Australia, was launched after founder Maddy Scarf traveled to Japan with her father in 2012 and noticed people wearing surgical masks. After falling sick upon arrival, they realized the importance of using face masks, but recognized a gap in the market for a fashionable alternative.
"Most people associate face masks with a medical, clinical, stark product and we believed that by creating a face mask with a stylish design, we could reduce the stigma and change the perception of wearing face masks as a way to take control of your health," says Scarf.
Tecmask launched in Japan in 2015 and became one of the top-selling masks in the country, earning features in the likes of Vogue Japan along the way. The masks are made of three layers and feature a high-quality PM2.5 filter. Modeled on the standard surgical design, they come in a range of patterns and colors and are disposable, but made of recyclable fabric.
Demand for the product skyrocketed during the bushfire crisis in Australia, with Tecmask experiencing a 735% increase in sales in December. Scarf also says the crisis contributed to a change in attitudes regarding face masks, especially after 35 days were reported as having "hazardous" air quality in Australia.
"Many Asian countries have been utilizing face masks for many years to combat and assist with the poor air quality that their regions endure," she says in an email. "We believe that bringing Tecmask to markets where [masks] are less popular, such as the Australian market, is an opportunity for us to educate consumers about the benefits and many uses of wearing a face mask."
Based in San Francisco and Shanghai, Airpop masks resemble standard face protection, but with the addition of vivid color. Airpop creates lightweight masks with ergonomic designs to fit the curves of the face, with an aerodrome design specially tailored to allow clean air to circulate around the face, helped by 300 micro-apertures.
The masks also come in different styles for different occasions, including commuting, activewear and warm weather. Each is designed to be used for a specific activity. Take, for example, the mask designed for commuting: It has a flex frame construction from micro-fiber material, rendering the outer shell temperature-, water- and abrasion-resistant. This mask also has the option for intelligent technology to be supplied via a Halo Sensor which can link to a mobile phone app, providing feedback and personalized guidance on pollution levels.
The elegant Bioscarf made by G95 Inc, based in Atlanta, Georgia, looks, feels and functions like a normal accessory, but provides wide-ranging protection.
Developed by Carlton and Hazel Solle, the Bioscarf is a versatile alternative to regular face masks. The G95 filtration technology, which offers protection from bacteria, virus, smoke and particles, is embedded throughout the entire material, so individuals can be creative in how they wear the scarves.
"We have made a conscious effort to use our products to raise awareness and educate people about air pollution and the health risks associated with it. In addition, we have a specific section on our website that actually discusses how existing air pollution health hazards are intensifying and new health threats are emerging because of climate change," says Carlton Solle via email.
"We have seen a significant rise in sales with the wildfires in Australia and now with the virus outbreak," he adds, noting that coronavirus fears caused production to move from China back to the United States.
They have also rolled out other items of clothing under the G95 brand, including a Biohoodie, which features G95 Filtration Technology in the hood, and Biogoggles, which keep eyes protected from pollution. In the future, the team is planning to create an industrial-grade version of their G95 Filtration Material for more heavy-duty applications.