Cowboy boots used to be Sebastian Marquardt’s go-to fashion item. He’d wear them everywhere in his neighborhood of Hamburg, Germany. He liked that the black, pointy shoes – more common in parts of the US – stood out.
But these days, the 43-year-old has a different must-have accessory: A face mask.
Due to coronavirus concerns, some countries have made it mandatory for people to wear masks when they go out. Many, like Marquardt, have used the recommendation as a way to get creative.
Marquardt currently has 10 different face mask styles to choose from – one has pink unicorns, another says “Chill!” But his favorite is the one with his own face on it.
“I’m usually a smiling person. I like to interact with people,” Marquardt told CNN. “But if you have to wear a mask, you aren’t that open anymore. People can’t see your face. It’s a way to show a bit of (my personality), an open and funny person.”
He’s not the only one who has found a way to make wearing a face mask feel less uniform.
Now, across the globe, people are no longer just using masks as protective gear – they are using them to make statements about their personalities, their politics and their beliefs.
Masks to show off personality
Just as clothes can say a lot about a person, masks can too.
Thousands of different patterns, colors, and styles have popped up on sites like Etsy, showcasing the increased interest in personalizing masks in the time of coronavirus.
The demand for creative masks is so high, there’s now even a company that has formed its entire business model around them.
MaskClub, a company that launched last month, offers people a subscription for monthly face masks. The company has licensing deals with Hasbro, NASA, Warner Bros. – so customers can match their moods with masks featuring characters like the Powerpuff Girls, Batman or Hello Kitty.
Masks fit for the runway
Fashion brands Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Chanel announced last month that they would be dedicating several of their workshops across France to produce “hundreds of thousands of non-surgical face masks” for healthcare workers.
No, these masks don’t have Louis Vuitton’s iconic logo or Burberry’s signature checked pattern. They’re strictly for function. But that hasn’t stopped fashion lovers from repurposing their own luxury goods into masks.
One glance at Instagram and you’ll see hundreds of pictures of people donning masks with patterns from Gucci, Supreme, Louis Vuitton and more.
Paris Colby, an artist from Indianapolis, Indiana, made her own mask out of a Gucci print shirt and material from a pair of vintage Army pants and jacket.
“I feel like if it’s something that I’m going to be wearing everyday, I see it as kind of an accessory,” Colby told CNN. “Whatever you’re wearing that day, you want it to go with whatever you have on. (When I wear my custom mask) I think it says, she’s got good style, she’s got good taste.”
Colby noted that masks have been a fashion item in Asia long before the coronavirus pandemic. It’s rare to see a K-pop star not wearing a mask as part of their “airport fashion” looks.
But in the age of the pandemic, the demand to be protected while sporting the hottest brands have skyrocketed. Searches for fashion face masks saw a jump of 496% over the first quarter of 2020, according to The Lyst Index, which ranks fashion’s most popular brands and products.
The hottest men’s product of the quarter was Off-White’s arrow logo mask, which cost $95. It’s sold out at retailers worldwide, but resale platforms are listing the mask for up to three times its original price, The Lyst Index reported.
Some people have sought out designer Samia al-Zakleh for custom masks.
Al-Zakleh, a 29-year-old from Amman, Jordan, has been selling masks covered with Swarovski crystals.
“They absolutely loved it and thought of it as a way to protect themselves in style,” al-Zakleh told CNN.
Celebrities and influencers have been photographed wearing them, she said.
Masks that help give back
Many businesses have pivoted their strategy to make sure they have masks as part of their offerings to customers.
But as more clothing brands and designers release their own versions of face masks, so too come the accusations that they’re capitalizing on a global crisis that’s claimed more than 267,000 lives.
That’s why some are seeking to give back to their communities by donating masks or proceeds from their mask sales.
Buying a mask for $5 might be chump change for many in the US, but in the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, it’s more money than what many people make during a day, according to designer David Avido.
Having grown up in Kibera, Avido knew all too well that people there didn’t have the means to protect themselves from the virus.
“Most of the people that live in the slums live hand to mouth and in a day, they get paid maybe $3 US dollars,” Avido told CNN. “They aren’t able to buy hand sanitizer or a mask while at the same time trying to buy food for their family.”
So the 24-year-old, known for designing bright clothing made from African wax prints, turned his attention to making masks and donating them to his community.
“My face masks allow people to show off their personality and style while staying protected,” Avido told CNN. “Yes, you have to accept what is happening with the pandemic, but at the end of the day, life doesn’t stop and people need to keep their personality in a time like this.”
Other major brands have also started making proceeds of their mask sales go to Covid-19 relief efforts.
For example, Alice + Olivia is donating a mask for each one that’s bought to communities in need. Clothing brand Reformation allows customers to donate $25 to send five reusable masks to essential workers.
Masks as political statements
In the US, just choosing to wear a mask can be viewed as a political statement, with many on the right following President Donald Trump’s lead to not wear masks in public.
But for those who do decide to follow the US Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation, there are masks designed to showcase every political belief.
Etsy has “Trump 2020” masks, masks with Joe Biden’s face, masks with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s face, and many more offerings in the same vein.
Resistance by Design, a liberal company that creates products promoting political activism, now offers a “Vote” mask, to help remind Americans about the upcoming election.
Alex Posen, co-founder of the company, said she initially created the mask as a way to keep herself and her family protected during the pandemic.
But when Posen received an overwhelming positive response to the design, she and Dahna Goldstein, her co-founder, decided to make them available to the public. The mask is aptly priced at $20.20.
“It’s a new clothing item that literally covers your mouth, where your voice comes from,” Posen said. “Putting a political message over your mouth is an extremely powerful message.”
Since offering them last month, nearly 10,000 masks have been sold and have been worn by the likes of former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
“The mask is the new T-shirt,” Goldstein said. “When people go to a protest or try to have their opinions about things, people will wear T-shirts or hats or carry signs, but we’re not able to protest at the moment. So when people are getting their vote masks and posting selfies online, it’s a manifestation of a desire to have that kind of political and societal voice and expression in the ways that we can at the moment.”
While the coronavirus might have put the upcoming election on the back of people’s minds, Posen and Goldstein said they hope their masks will remind people how crucial it is for them to vote.
“It’s imperative that everybody vote,” Posen said, “and it’s also imperative that everybody be able to vote safely.”