In making high fashion masks, are designers catering too much to vanity?


When the pandemic began, people were clamoring to buy whatever face masks they could find to protect themselves. Now six months into quarantine, people are looking for more fashionable masks that meet their needs and personal styles. 

“I really personally do not like the medical ones, so having one that's more aesthetically pleasing was pretty ideal. … Design is an important factor in our lives right now as a way to cope in the new reality that we live in,” says Brya Gerard, a designer for a fashion brand called Busted

Gerard is among the wave of designers who are looking to better integrate face masks into people’s daily lives during the pandemic. The designs range from bedazzled coverings to printed logo masks, but Gerard’s approach is a bit more risque. 

Mariano Cortez (left) and Brya Gerard (right) stand in their downtown design studio for their brand, Busted. Photo Courtesy of Mariano Cortez.

She co-created a latex face covering with a zipper over the mouth, called a gimp mask , with her co-designer Mariano Cortez. 

Both designers say they are surprised so people would feel comfortable wearing their glossy black zippered latex mask in public places, such as the grocery store. But they add that their customers are also looking for new ways to show their personalities when their faces are covered. 

Gimp mask created by the fashion brand Busted. Photo Courtesy of Busted.

“I feel like it's a time that has brought out a lot of more authentic self expression in people than we've seen before,” says Gerard. “As a result of this, people are finding more comfort and freedom in how they dress themselves.”

Designers are also trying to make masks part of complete looks during quarantine. Rio Uribe, who owns a brand called Gypsy Sport , created a mask inspired by a dress he previously designed. The dress is from a collection that uses safety pins and beans.

Chain link mask designed by Rio Uribe. Photo courtesy of Rio Uribe.

The mask itself resembles a chain link fence . However, Uribe says the mask serves as an ornamental covering over a disposable mask, so customers can always have a fresh look over a clean mask. 

The mask can also be worn with the initial dress and earrings, says Uribe, for socially distant events, such as a beach wedding. The entire look  totals $1100. The ornamental covering with a disposable mask underneath cost $33.

Uribe recognizes his mask may be expensive compared to basic face coverings. But he says people may be able to wear trendy masks now that they have fewer reasons to buy clothes for special occasions.

“We're not able to go out, and we're not able to maybe dine out as much as usual, so we have more money to spend on clothes and Amazon,” says Uribe. “ We might spend a little more on [face masks] now that we're not doing as much with our daily lives.”

Uribe also points out his mask isn’t one of the most expensive on the market. Some luxury designers make masks that cost $150, while brands like Supreme sell branded masks in the $450 range. 

Perhaps the most expensive mask out there is by designer Gabriel Dishaw. He made an artistic Darth Vader-like mask from repurposed Louis Vutton leather goods, totalling $1800, which still requires a disposable mask underneath. 

While face mask aesthetics may be worth the cost for some people, others are looking for an everyday mask that is easier to use. 

The nonprofit XPRIZE Foundation conducted a worldwide survey to learn why people don’t like to wear masks. The three reasons: They’re too hot, they fog people’s glasses, and they are difficult to breathe in. 

In response, XPRIZE launched and funded a $1 million competition to encourage designers ages 15-24 to create face coverings that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. When the submissions whittle down to a few final choices, the masks will then be rigorously tested by health experts and social influencers. 

Portrait of Emily Church, XPrize Executive Director of Equity and Education, who also oversees the Next Gen Mask Challenge. Photo courtesy of XPrize Foundation.

“What we want is massive adoption of mask wearing behavior, and a mask that people don't mind wearing, and that it's an enjoyable thing to have or fun or fashion-forward or at least doesn't bother them as much as some of the ones they may have,” says Emily Church, an executive director with the XPRIZE Foundation. 

All these concerns for form and fashion may move the needle towards wider mask wearing. But some people, like mask vendor Troy Smith, say these designers are catering too much to vanity. 

Five days a week, Smith sells face coverings from different locations throughout the city from a little table he pops up next to his parked car. 

Troy Smith sells face shields and masks near the intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and Coliseum. Photo by Jerome Campbell.

On the table, he displays basic face shields and blue surgical masks on plastic dummy heads, which he says are sufficient to protect people and their communities. The prices range from $1 to $3. 

Near his table, Smith keeps a black trash bag full of  fashionable masks featuring printed animal faces or brand logos. He says he doesn’t take them out to show people unless they insist on seeing them.  

“They want style and fashion, and I don't think we've gotten to that point yet to be comfortable enough to be stylish with the corona. We just try to be healthy,” says Smith. 

Smith emphasizes that the mask's sole job is to protect people so everyone can go back to their lives before the pandemic.

The director of the CDC said last month that if everyone wore masks,then COVID-19 could be brought under control and stay-at-home orders could be eased.

Designers, mask vendors, and public health experts agree that their ultimate focus is getting people to wear their masks, regardless of aesthetic or price point. It’s the only way to bring this trend to a close.