It began with people wearing masks as protective gear against air pollution that saw a spike in recent times in many parts of the country. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, masks have become a necessity, so much so that medical stores and other suppliers are having a hard time meeting its burgeoning demand.
Amid the shortage of supply of N95 masks came in benefactors who took the initiative to stitch and distribute masks to those in need. Celebrated fashion designers, from Masaba Gupta to Ritu Kumar, among many others, shifted their existing resources to non-surgical, three-layered reusable mask production.
These masks looked different — made of coloured or printed fabric, they were nothing close to the monotonous black, grey or white masks that we were buying earlier. The branded products came to be available in attractive designs, packaged at varying price range, as people began to opt for colourful designer masks.
Scroll through social media and you will notice how face masks are evolving beyond being a necessity item into a fetish. So now, you will find brides and grooms wearing customised designer masks or those colour-coordinating masks with their clothes, making it a fashion statement. “It goes without saying that masks are going to be around for long time, so why not make them an object of desire? Brides can opt for couture masks to compliment her attire and accentuate the entire look. Weddings in the current times have new norms. Couples are wearing masks for the festivities and having coordinated masks, may be printed or with some embroidery matching the outfits,” designer Payal Singhal, who has been designing signature PS print masks, told indianexpress.com.
Around February, fashion brand Marine Serre debuted a collection of designer face masks at Paris Fashion Week, describing her work as “future wear”, reported Insider. Another Belgian-based design studio WeWantMore created a series of masks of material from old sneakers, although they clarified they were not for sale.
Some fashion designers in Africa have now begun incorporating their trademark designs on face masks. Another Iceland-based designer caught attention by making 3D knitwear masks. In an interview with Vogue, the designer talked about how her project was aimed at encouraging self-expression through masks.
From “Obama made America Great” prints to those with quirky quotes and company logos, designer masks are making quite a mark among people.
Until now, masks were considered a marker for East Asian people who would wear them in public. The custom is known to have originated in Japan around early 20th, following influenza pandemic post World War I. With the outbreak of 2002 SARS and 2006 bird flu panic, the practice came to be adopted by Asian immigrants in the West too.
Today, masks are not just restricted to a certain community; they are the new “normal” for all of us, blurring divides. It is further a sign of civic responsibility. Payal said, “Masks are definitely for the purpose of protection but it is also a sign of showing that you care for the community.”
Now that masks are an integral part of our lives, they could well be turned into an accessory, suggests fashion designer Ritu Kumar, who told indianexpress.com, “I think now that we have to learn to live with the virus, the problem is that if we go out of our homes, we’d need to take protection, therefore, the mask becomes a necessity. Having said that, it doesn’t have to be a very simple looking accessory, therefore, we’re creating masks that complement our outfits, with printed fine fabrics which can be mixed and matched with garments in anyone’s closet.” Ritu’s fashion house is currently making not couture but “casual masks” with specialised fabrics.
Masks, like clothes, are becoming a way of self-expression. “It is time we accept mask as a part of normal life and wearing a solid colour plain mask gets monotonous. People are opting for designer masks as a way of self-expression. Breathability and functionality are paramount but printed and textured masks are a way to convey your feelings and comforting even for the people who see your mask,” remarked Payal.
You need not go to established designer brands to buy masks. With the Health Ministry releasing guidelines on how to stitch a cotton face mask at home, many enthusiasts took the opportunity to start their own venture either from scratch or as a way to revive their existing business. The numerous sellers on social media are proof.
“I am skilled in stitching so I just stitched some masks while sitting at home during the lockdown. I was also aware that there were small-scale tailors and migrants who were out of work. So, I decided to rope them in as I started,” said Suchita, who is now reaching out to her customers on social media and through word-of-mouth. “We now have more than 20 people working with us. Our team is making 400-500 masks daily. The masks are priced between Rs 30-150,” she said.
What kind of masks are people buying? “Many ask for customised masks with memes or quotes printed on them so we make them accordingly,” she added. Her next target is branding the masks.
Shaswaty Nair, a textile designer based out of Kolkata, who runs a company called Shrivatsa is currently selling face masks in pairs, each for Rs 150. “The fabrics used are pure cotton dyed in extracts of turmeric, neem, tulsi, red sandalwood and indigo.They are healthy and easy to breathe into. That remains our first priority. We were already creating garments of the same fabric and promoting healthy wear. Of course, we will explore minimal surface ornamentation as it is going to become an accessory, but we need to ensure it remains a safe and healthy alternative,” she said.
The entrepreneurs are coordinating and training workers via WhatsApp call, like Sriparna Das Chakraborty, an entrepreneur from Gurgaon dealing with manufacture of crochet and macrame. She said, “Due to the lockdown, our artisans were sitting at home with no income and that was pinching me. Before this, I did not have any experience in stitching. So I first learned it and started making samples. Meanwhile, I shared tutorials with the artisans. We procured fabrics and elastics from our old suppliers and started making masks. It has been just over a month since we started this and by now we have sold more than 5,000 masks.” The three-pleat masks are being made as per instructions of the Health Ministry. For now, Sriparna is sticking to production of printed cotton masks and not customised masks. They are priced at Rs 30-35.
There has been an ongoing debate about capitalising on masks–which is now an essential item to be bought by people of all income groups–and selling them at a high price. Designer masks on Amazon start at around Rs 299 for a pack of three and goes up to Rs 900, depending on quality and print. Just as any other luxury item. Fab India, for instance, is selling pleated masks in a set of four for around Rs 170, while printed masks are being sold for Rs 150 each. Masaba’s designer masks, on the other hand, start at Rs 750 each.
“According to me, masks should be offered at a very reasonable price point so it’s something that you’re adding on to the collection,” said Ritu.
For Suchita, it is about providing suitable income to her workers in these trying times. She said, “One needs to understand that it is not just about selling masks but also providing sustenance to the people who are working with us and are grappling with the crisis.”
For now, face masks are here to stay, and so are designer masks. Perhaps that is what may help people come to terms with the post-COVID-19 way of living, to take the constant fear of health off their minds, and to embrace it as just another clothing item.