Early into quarantine, Hillary Taymour, who runs the New York-based brand Collina Strada, channeled her energy into making masks. Back then, the fashion world could sense impending doom as everyone became forced shut-ins overnight. Who would be mad enough to buy anything but sweatpants and house slippers, the thinking went, when we’ve all been reduced to talking digital heads? No one was saving up for a new Prada coat.
Taymour, like many other fashion designers, saw a possible solution. We needed to wear masks to stop the virus from spreading—but why couldn’t we wear ones that were dementedly happy? She set about translating her line’s psychedelic exuberance into $100 face coverings. They featured whimsical patterns made from deadstock fabrics and tied with theatrical bows. “It helped me stay optimistic during a really dark time for fashion,” she recently said.
Her masks were also a lifeline.
Perhaps because Taymour injected a dollop of joy into her designs, or maybe because she works largely with recycled materials, and so had plenty on hand, her masks were a hit. They even created a halo effect: Google searches of her brand name skyrocketed 600%, she said. She continues to carry a variety of them on her site, including ones that say Black Lives Matter, plus a tutorial on how to make them at home. She’d like to get back to, you know, making clothes, but for now, the masks will stay.
She’s not alone. In a period of existential turmoil for the fashion industry, masks have been an unexpected silver lining. It will surprise exactly no one to learn that, since March, a robust mask economy has blossomed. Investment bank KeyBanc Capital Markets estimates that the mask market in the United States could be worth a staggering $6 billion by 2021. But while the Marker story that contains that estimate suggests the “mask bubble” might “pop,” fashion businesses of every size indicate the opposite. Etsy is a particularly fascinating snapshot at how large this category has grown: The retail platform sold 29 million masks during Q2 (so, roughly April through June), and clocked close to $350 million in mask-related gross merchandise sales. More than 100,000 Etsy vendors made a mask sale during the quarter, and the term “face masks” was the number one searched phrase on-site—approximately 11 searches per second.
Perhaps the biggest sign of the mask’s staying power is that behemoths like Uniqlo, Gap, and Adidas are selling them. These are enormous companies with complex supply chains: creating a new product can take months or years, rather than the hour it took Taymour. But switch they did, and all of a sudden, clothing companies had a new low-margin accessory in a time when people are mostly abstaining from clothing purchases. (Adidas and Uniqlo both declined to speak about their mask strategies for this story.)
This much is clear: If ugly sneakers defined 2017, and itty-bitty sunglasses defined 2018, then 2020 belongs to the mask. And they’re not just a trend. The mask has saturated the culture, becoming a symbol of our political inclinations as well as a vehicle of self-expression. It simultaneously hides and reveals, confines and frees.
Are masks a passing pandemic fad, or part of a new normal? They are born of necessity, though once a vaccine is found and widely distributed, that need will subside. But it’s not clear that our desire for them—and brands’ interest in turning a quick buck—will disappear.
“As this has been such an unprecedented situation, I think it will take a while for the public to recover and return to our normal habits,” said Claire Foster, head of footwear and accessories at the trend forecasting firm WGSN. Once a vaccine has been found, he says, it may take time before people—or at least, those people who understand that masks are essential to controlling the pandemic—feel comfortable going maskless, especially now that we’re all so very aware of how quickly airborne viruses spread.