'Masks but make them fashion': How designers and influencers are turning protective gear into a stylish accessory

Brands and designers turn non-medical-grade masks into statement-making fashion accessories. (Photo: Instagram/Christian Siriano)
Brands and designers turn non-medical-grade masks into statement-making fashion accessories. (Photo: Instagram/Christian Siriano)

Masks have started to enter the mainstream as places across the country and around the world have enforced that the protective face coverings be worn in response to the coronavirus pandemic. While some have been reluctant to wear the not-so-aesthetically pleasing masks to run errands outside of the household and have even debated the need to do so, the fashion industry has seemingly played a role in increasing the willingness of many by promoting the gear as an accessory.

Chinae Alexander, a New York-based influencer and empowerment expert, fell ill with what she believed was the coronavirus in late March. She shared her experiences with her 155,000 followers on Instagram. Making sure to responsibly communicate her symptoms and how she was keeping herself safely isolated, she reminded her audience of the importance of taking the virus seriously. Nearly two months later, she continues to serve her followers with what she knows best — fashion influencing.

“Masks but make them fashion...” she captioned a slideshow of photos showing off a number of colorfully printed protective masks, most with tags to the brands that made them. People proceeded to thank her not only for the inspiration but for the “resources” she was providing that would ultimately motivate them to seek out masks that they actually wanted to wear.

“To be honest, I really dislike wearing them but it’s a small sacrifice to help a much more important cause, so I thought I might as well make them fun and an accessory to my quarantine looks,” Alexander tells Yahoo Life. “I’m half Korean so masks have always been visible to me culturally but I started seeing more and more U.S.-based brands creating fashion masks when retail shut down stateside.”

One of the brands making these masks is Reformation, a sustainable women-run fashion brand based out of Los Angeles that has seemingly spearheaded efforts throughout the industry to put resources toward the coronavirus and ensuring that customers are protected.

“When the impact of COVID-19 became clear, we reached out to [Los Angeles] Mayor Garcetti’s office to see how we could help,” Reformation's founder and CEO, Yael Aflalo, tells Yahoo Life. “With our factory temporarily closed under the Safer at Home order in Los Angeles, pivoting operations to mask production and using our relationships to mobilize other garment and apparel manufacturers to do the same felt like a small but important way Reformation could contribute.”

The brand and city partnered to launch L.A. Protects, an initiative to gather local manufacturers to boost the supply chain of protective gear for essential workers and individuals in need of non-medical-grade masks. Since then, countless brands have followed suit with similar efforts to make masks for purchase with the additional incentive that for every mask purchased, a mask will be donated to an essential worker.

Protection being a priority, the element of fashion was merely a result of the fabrics that manufacturers had on-hand from the clothing that they were already producing.

On the opposite coast, designer Christian Siriano reached out to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to offer his services to create and donate masks for frontline workers. Unable to stray far from his couture roots, however, Siriano eventually created a pearl-encrusted mask for fun and saw a demand for it from customers.

Now, the designer continues to collect donations in order to make masks for frontline workers in need, while also curating limited runs of high-fashion masks for sale at a cost of $595, the proceeds of which all go back toward funding the production of donated masks.

Siriano didn’t immediately respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment. However, the designer opened up to Time about the necessary shift in his business and how it will impact the industry going forward. “I don’t think fashion will mean the same thing after this. I think things need to be more emotional and mean something,” he said, adding that the decorative masks are like “a new form of jewelry.”

While people across the U.S. have been leaning into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations by way of making a fashion statement, South Africa-based stylist, Baile Bontlefeela Mogoye, explains that she’s witnessed the same shift in her country.

Similar to the U.S., Mogoye tells Yahoo Life that wearing a protective mask is not a norm of South African culture, which made way for people to view it as additional garb. “As soon as the textile industry opened for us to produce masks in different kinds of fabric, then it was seen as a fashion statement,” she says. “It was exciting to explore a new possible fashion item.”

She even posted a photo of her own high-fashion look made complete with a standout mask.

In response to those who disagree with the protective gear being reimagined as a fashion statement, Mogoye maintains that fashion is all about the pieces that you put on your body being a means of expression. She even encourages brands to “explore and experiment,” which many seem to be doing.

”Turning masks into fashionable items turns it into excitement from the consumers,” Mogoye says, hopeful that the trend will mean an increasingly positive response to enforcement.

“I am hopeful that these masks represent more than an accessory but more so an intentional consideration of each other and the bigger community of people we interact with everyday,” Alexander adds.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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