If we have to live with a face mask in the foreseeable future, let it be a designer one. Luxury brands to corporate fashion, artisanal communities to even turban designers are redefining the face mask into a fashion accessory, albeit one that follows all the norms of WHO safety protocols.
When Savile Row tailors begin to handcraft masks, you know that flu masks or face masks will continue to be part of our lives much after the world opens up for business.
The bizarre situation arising out of the COVID pandemic has sparked an amazing amount of creativity among designers and artisans. Glamorous to the artistic, the range of masks flooding the market is exhilarating.
While the initial intention of designers and brands was to create masks for a more altruistic purpose — to rush supplies to frontline workers as a contribution to the fight against the pandemic, it is turning into another vertical of their business. For artisans, on the other hand, it is a means to survive the financial constraints imposed by the lockdown and tide over these uncertain times.
Globally, fashion brands such as Dior, Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton recalibrated their manufacturing units to make masks, protective gear and sanitsiers. Their masks initiative has moved from public-spirited to a fashion offering. Indian designers and savvy artisans are fast catching up.
Face masks are a canvas for self-expression and a means of survival at a time when most business has come to a halt. According to the book History of Surgical Face Masks by John L. Spooner, masks first made an appearance as protective gear for medical practitioners in the 19th century. They were adapted in China in 1910 to prevent spread of pneumonic plague.
Fashion in Asian countries such as China, Korea and Japan included designer face masks as a shield to deal with rising pollution. The rest of the world is waking up to the fact that your mask does not have to be boring or surgical if you aren’t a frontline healthcare worker or afflicted by COVID.
The Savile Row mask
Established tailors on this iconic London street are handcrafting and retailing face masks, which is now an essential accessory in our fight against the coronavirus. Huntsman, a big name on Savile Row, handcrafts soft masks made using 100 percent Egyptian cotton. The double-layered masks are embroidered with their signature alphabet ‘H’ and are sold in a classic box pleat design with elasticated straps.
Henry Poole & Co, which created the world’s first tuxedo in 1865 for the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, has designed an elegant mask to complement a suit. Available in pleated or plain sports version, they are made with robust coloured elastic in breathable, cotton-based silica. The bespoke tailors can also make masks-to-order to match an existing suit or jacket. The House intends to launch a collection in Harris tweeds and cashmere, with soft silica mouth coverings, as well as stylish velvet and corded silk evening masks to match the Henry Poole bow tie and dinner jacket.
Order them and they will even ship it to India once trade channels open.
The luxury monogrammed masks
LVMH, owner of brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dior, Givenchy and Fendi, has employed 300 additional artisans to make non-surgical face masks. The LV masks feature the classic brown monogram pattern in tan suede with gold rivets reinforcement and costs up to $1800. Pretty much like LV, Fendi has put out a logo-monogrammed mask in deep tan/brown shade that has been designed and hand-stitched by artisans in their Paris atelier.
Hermés, the French fashion house, has trimmed its iconic scarves around the edges with a ribbon to create face masks. The Hermès scarf is also being worn as a glamorous substitute to a mask, with women knotting them around their nose and mouth. Chanel’s monogrammed mask is jewel-encrusted for that extra touch of bling for these sad times.
The celebrity-endorsed masks
Sometime in March 2020, Payal Singhal, designer to several Bollywood celebrities and elite, launched a social media campaign that involved her patterned face masks. The #PSILoveYou had influencers and celebrities sending out pictures of themselves in her masks.
“We enhanced them with our special #PSPrints that went with each influencer/celebrity’s personality to showcase their solidarity with the campaign to raise awareness about wearing masks.”
Singhal received several enquiries for her PS Masks and decided to launch them commercially. The 3ply masks in two variant shapes have meltblown filters and come with a pouch to store them in.
The signature pattern face masks
Most designers have signature prints that they are known for. Priyanka Modi, creative Director of AMPM, an edgy fashion brand has dovetailed their prints with some colour “added keeping in mind the universal dreariness, to lift up the spirits of the people who end up wearing them”. The result is a collection of snug textured, patterned masks with contemporary aesthetics and angular lines.
Functional to the tee, these masks can be bought online as well as at AMPM stores, and retail between Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000.
Fashion house Crea India’s delicate floral and geometric face masks have three layers. “A dri-fit polyester or mesh as an outer layer, two layers of medical grade SMS for particle filtration, and an inner layer of single jersey with anti-microbial wash for comfort,” says founder Upkar S Sharma. These are digitally printed N95 masks.
Designer Ritu Kumar, who set out to make high-quality cotton face masks at the brand’s factory in Gurugram to help the local affected community, is in the process of manufacturing them for consumers. Available in quintessential Ritu Kumar prints (delicate and floral), these 3-ply masks are made from natural fibres such as cotton and viscose that can be washed and reused, says the brand’s managing director, Amrish Kumar.The quilted ones
Lecoanet Hemant’s dreamy signature patterns and prints make way on to their 3-and-5 ply face masks. “We have used cotton poplin with polyester interlining, which feature prints and light quilting with fabric. Each mask undergoes UV-ray sterilisation before being packed in a fabric pouch made from the off cuts,” says designer and co-founder Hemant Sagar. The prices of the masks range from Rs 999 and Rs 1499 and they are being sold via the brand’s stores.
The embellished sustainable masks
Bangalore-based fashion brand House of Three has designed a range of eco-friendly handloom cotton and cotton-linen masks with gorgeous tropical patterns and embellishments. Sold through multi-brand e-commerce sites such as Tata CliQ IndiLuxe, “these masks have tropical and oceanic prints decked with placement applique and embroideries, which are an extension of our Spring/Summer collection called The Sealdah Lucknow Express and our Lakme Fashion Week sustainable collection called Kumarikandam”, says Business Director and Partner Anu Shyamsundar.
The Rajput-style masks
Rajputs are famous for their swag and their style, on display even in the most stressful of situations. Udaipur-based safa and turban designer Harendra Jodha, who studied the Rajput lifestyle at Chopasin School (they teach you how to live a life of leisure like a Rajput!) created a range of beautiful handloom cotton 3-ply masks to match the safas that the men wear, particularly at weddings or important ceremonies.
“The business was down and I felt the need to innovate. Besides, there will be weddings soon, and even if they are small ones, men will wear the safa. So why not create a collection that matches the safas they sport?” asks Jodha, whose work I discovered on A Hand to Handmade WhatsApp group (a movement established to bring into limelight the work of artisans, craftsmen, and the designers, retail stores and NGOs working with them) courtesy Jaya Jaitly (President and founder of Dastkari Haat Samiti and a patron of Indian crafts and arts), who in turn received it from actress and musician Ila Arun.
Steeped in Indian crafts and culture masks
India’s artisans and craftsmen have excelled in creating embroidered, printed and embellished masks that are steeped in their ancient crafts and arts tradition. Many of them are being sold on retail platforms such as Okhai and iTokri, online marketplaces that have given artisans affected by COVID space to showcase and sell. Kirti Poonia, who heads Okhai, a Tata initiative, says that they have been able to deliver 1 lakh masks made by artisans across the country. “We began by listing them on our website and social media handles, and connected buyers with the artisans based on the pin code the two came from.” Okhai helped the artisans to get the technical details, such as breathable fabric and 3ply and a snug fit, right. Now, of course, they have launched their brand of hand-embroidered face masks called Kiara.
iTokri began by creating mask production facilities at Gwalior where they employed 40 women, many of whom are facing financial difficulties due to lack of work. Now, the e-commerce marketplace for artisans is collaborating with 10 artisan collectives to source and sell Kalamkari, Sanganer and several such craft-led masks says co-founder Nitin Pamnani.
The design initiative of A Hand to Handmade (AHTH) has worked on patterns for face masks that are graded for all age groups in a bid to standardise them after testing. Payal Nath, who co-founded Kadam, a not-for-profit organisation that skills artisans and a member of AHTH’s core and design group, says, “We have created the first set of two patterns that are downloadable and printable. They were distributed as open-source to the group.”The corporate-to-sporty ones
Working through a pandemic doesn’t mean you have to wear the boring surgical blue mask that is so common. Brands such as Paul & Shark, Jack & Jones and Zodiac have put out a range of formal face masks that spell classic office style. Paul & Shark’s range of sporty face masks is being made in their plant in Varese and can double up for any outdoor activity. Jack & Jones have put out nine trendy denim-themed designs. These 3-ply masks offer wide face coverage, are washable and reusable for up to 20 times.
Brands such as Allen Solly, Peter England and Zodiac have put out a range of combo packs in a variety of prints and designs, many of which match the shirts on sale. New-age brand such as FolkIndia that practices ethical sourcing, zero waste and fair trade, has designed unisex naturally-dyed organic handloom cotton and linen masks. Manjir Chatterjee, the founder-director of the brand says, “They are simply constructed from skin-friendly and breathable fabrics that are machine washable and colour-fast.”Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.