Face masks: from safety to style, the new must-have accessory

Model wearing facemask at Marine Serre's Paris Fashion Week show in September

As the UK, along with other countries across the globe, begins to ease lockdown restrictions, face masks have become more and more visible on the streets as the population eases its way into the new normal. With the wearing of face coverings mandatory in shops from this week demand is set to soar as the face mask becomes the new must-have accessory – literally.

Face masks have been worn in some parts of Asia for many years and became increasingly widespread following the outbreak of SARS in 2003. Western consumers have often shown reluctance to wear masks, with some going so far as to denounce mask-wearing rather than viewing it as unified symbol of collective social responsibility or solidarity.

During the midst of the pandemic, both US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had eschewed advice from healthcare officials to wear masks in public spaces. There has also been much debate over whether wearing a face mask is effective in the UK and initially the British government has made tentative comments in relation to wearing face masks in public spaces.

However in June, the UK government announced that non-medical face coverings would be mandatory on public transport in England and most recently made the use of face masks compulsory in shops from 24 July with shoppers risking a £100 fine if they fail to do so.

Credit: Photo by Shutterstock Street Style, Spring Summer 2020, Paris Fashion Week, France – 24 Sep 2019

As cities begin to emerge from lockdowns and reopen worldwide, more government guidelines and health officials across the globe have recommended the use of face masks in public, resulting in masks becoming a wardrobe essential for many western consumers, similar to other fashion accessory trends like handbags and socks.

As well as consumers embracing masks, there has been an influx of labels and brands making masks a part of their current offerings. This has led to a number of fashion and beauty retailers capitalising on this new opportunity and rushing to produce masks for both healthcare workers and consumers.

Searches for non-medical face masks were at its highest this year, according to global fashion search platform Lyst. Searches increased 510% from the beginning of the year to the start of May. Page views for scarves also increased when the seasonal demand for this category would normally be much lower.

Brands, both large and small, have managed to rapidly pivot their supply chains to produce masks, and see a long-term opportunity in continuing to do so. Major fashion giants and retail chains, including the likes of ASOS, Mango, Topshop and Superdrug have begun to offer masks in a wide range of styles and colours.

In June, Uniqlo launched its Airism face mask, designed with a breathable high-tech fabric usually used for its underwear range, which was in such high demand that its website crashed. The great demand for its face masks, which remained sold out in Japan for weeks after launch, demonstrated to other retailers how lucrative branded fashionable masks could be.

Branding consultancy Interbrand Japan’s chief executive Masahito Namiki told the Financial Times: “In the era of the coronavirus pandemic, masks are no longer commodities but have become something that hold significance.”

 “By selling masks, brands can send the message that they are socially responsible and doing something good for society”.

The MaskClub

The growing face mask trend has also been an opportunity for brands to extend their international presence. A prime example includes US based mask brand, The MaskClub which launched in UK and Europe in June, after its US launch saw 100,000 masks donated to first responders and 1 million visitors to the site within the first four weeks. Sourcing a new regional location, the brand decided to add to its existing USA production to urgently reach a European audience.

As face masks have steadily gained popularity in the fashion world, the trend has also become a licensing opportunity for industries outside of the fashion world including sports and entertainment. Masks with signature prints and iconic labels, as well as patented colours, have opened a new avenue of creative branding prospects for fashion giants and brands.

The Maskclub which recently launched in UK is a new company from Trevco, one of the top licensees in the world which is producing double-ply masks that are hand-printed, handmade and hand-sewn in Europe. Trevco is known as one of the largest e-commerce players for licensed merchandise, thanks to a unique print-on-demand apparel & accessories technology.

Off-White arrow face mask

The high-end and luxury fashion sector has also tapped into the growing face mask trend. Prabal Gurung created masks with a $55 floral jacquard fabric. British luxury designer Erdem currently offers a floral cotton poplin mask for £45 which echoes the rest of the brand’s iconic floral prints.

During the May period the most in-demand menswear product was Off-White’s £65 arrow face mask, which had sold out worldwide, and is currently listed for up to three times its original price on resale platforms according to global fashion search platform Lyst’s quarterly report. Notably Off-White, similar to other luxury streetwear brands like Gucci and Marine Serre, had been selling masks as a fashion item for a few seasons prior to the start of the pandemic.

Billie Eilish

Even before the pandemic, detailed face masks have been a part of street style fashion and have made an appearance at many fashion weeks. Influencers and Generation Z icons, such as pop star Billie Eilish, have been seen wearing designer masks to high profile events, such as tailormade crystal embellished Gucci mask which she sported at the 2020 Grammys.

Similar to the way in which the hybrid luxury streetwear market tapped into the sneaker, belt bags and denim trend to attract millennials and younger consumers, trend forecasters have seen face masks as an additional route to attract a younger market.

Although many brands have been forced to retail masks at a reasonable price point to maintain a positive reputation, the resale market has proved otherwise. From March to May, Glossy reported that StockX’s face mask sales increased by 210% and mask prices were up 282%. The Off-White mask, featuring the brand’s signature arrow design, originally retailed for $100 and was sold for $466 on the resale platform.

Many fashion brands which have incorporated masks as part of their current offering have adopted the buy-one, give-one model and also retail masks at an affordable price. Labels have been forced to price their masks at a reasonable price point as there is a risk of being criticised for profiting from the pandemic. Selling masks has generally created positive press and established goodwill with consumers, enabling manufacturers to operate and stay open.

Masks have become an entry point for some least likely retailers to survive and thrive during the pandemic. Etsy’s stock price had more than tripled in June since mid-March and was at a record high, making it amongst the far and few retail success stories during the Coronavirus outbreak.

The online marketplace for independent sellers has seen a drastic turnaround since March when its share value soared by more than half over Coronavirus fears. In early April the retailer called on its network of sellers and makers to “start making face masks” to cater to the growing demand. A week later, Etsy reported that buyers were searching face masks online an average of nine times per second since the announcement, totalling over two-million searches.

Throughout the rest of April the marketplace, which charges users a listing fee for each item and takes a small commission on sales, sold over 12 million masks worth a total of $133 million, with its non-mask sales also plummeting by 79%. This boom in sales has meant its share price has more than tripled to an all-time high of $101.22, following a 5.1% rise in June.

New Balance Face Mask v3

Some brands have been at an advantage when it comes to the production of face masks as they require both a durable and breathable material. This has meant activewear and sports apparel brands have stayed ahead of the game when it comes to creating effective face masks as they are used to producing clothing for athletes, runners and individuals who take part in sports and fitness.

Multiple activewear brands have already used this entry point to enter the market, for example Adidas currently sells a pack of three reusable face masks made from recycled polyester. Similarly, New Balance has an NB Face Mask v3 which has been designed to provide comfort by featuring a lightweight 3-layer construction, which is mouldable on the face and also has stretch ear loops.

Ted Baker face mask made from deadstock

The product category is also in line with current sustainability trend upcycling. Many brands have been creating face masks using offcuts and deadstock from their production life. The efficient approach has been adopted by a wide range of fashion labels including Ted Baker, which launched reusable face coverings made from surplus cottons from previous its collections. The brand is using the initiative to help divert stock fabric from going to landfills. This technique of producing masks allows fashion brands to cater to current growing demand by offering this new product category whilst remaining strategic and not investing into resources.

Finally with face masks becoming mandatory for customers shopping in retail stores, many fashion brands have found themselves in the midst of a battle with shoppers over wearing masks and other Covid-19 guidelines. Traditionally, this industry has always placed the customer above everything, which has meant that many brands are struggling with how to police behaviour in stores.

Generally, stores introduce rules that shoppers simply do not follow. Employees don’t feel empowered placing rules and demands on customers to put on a mask or to order them to leave if they refuse. In the UK, face masks were finally made mandatory inside stores recently, with shoppers subject to £100 fines for violating the rules.

Meanwhile, consumers and retail workers are encouraging brands to take charge, as customers who fail to wear masks or follow social distancing guidelines place other shoppers in the store at risk. Many retailers, who have relied heavily on voluntary mask policies and friendly floor stickers to enforce social distancing, are becoming more strict. However among major fashion retailers, mandatory policies are not common.