Retailers and brands are adding masks to their product offer. But what challenges come with this new category for fashion?

Rewind to the distant days of early spring and consumers would have been surprised to see protective face masks being sold by their favourite fashion brands and retailers. But as the coronavirus pandemic has transformed almost every aspect of our daily lives, more and more fashion businesses are adding masks to their offers. A pack of two face coverings in black is currently sold out on Asos; a leopard-print face mask sits side-by-side with bodycon dresses on Boohoo’s “new in” page and pretty printed masks are available from cult US label Reformation. German giant Zalando has sold face masks in a selection of eye-catching shades since the end of April.

Increasingly, masks are becoming part of consumer’s wardrobes. Many of those returning to work on public transport this week did so while wearing masks, after the government advised face coverings should be worn in enclosed spaces – including shops – where social distancing is not always possible. The UK advice is several weeks behind European nations such as Germany, where face masks have been compulsory in almost all states since late April, and the Czech Republic, which made wearing a face mask outside the home compulsory in March.

That demand is still growing, and I’ve had to order in more fabrics now to make the masks

Equipped with all the necessary materials, fashion businesses are well-placed to step in and fulfil demand for masks. Producing masks may seem simple enough – consumers want them, and retailers can make them. But those selling masks run the risk of being accused of profiteering from the pandemic. Brands also need to communicate clearly with consumers that these face coverings are not the same as medical products and do not replace other safety measures, such as frequent handwashing and social distancing measures.

Simple face coverings, like the ones sold by fashion brands, do not stop the wearer from becoming infected but may help to stop them spreading the virus. The most protective medical masks worn by NHS staff in high-risk situation filter out 95% of airborne particles, including viruses.

London-based designer Florence Bridge started producing and selling masks via her eponymous brand’s website in early April. Available in an array of prints, including candy pink gingham, inky blue marble, and jade acid wash, the masks are made from cotton and can be tied around the wearer’s face in two different ways. The masks retail for £12 and a proportion of profits from the sale of each mask is being donated to charity Fuel Our Frontline, which delivers groceries to hospital workers around the UK.

“My sister is a nurse working in A&E and I was reading about people bulk buying NHS surgical masks, knowing that my sister was facing having to work without the right equipment due to personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages,” Bridge tells Drapers.

“It made me want to do something and make masks that wouldn’t lead to shortages for the NHS. I made a few from leftover scraps of material I had in my studio. After I posted a picture online, demand for the masks just went mad. That demand is still growing, and I’ve had to order in more fabrics now to make the masks.”

Lots of consumers, if they do have to wear a mask, want it to look as friendly as possible

Isobel Ridley, Lavender Hill Clothing

Bridge adds that many consumers, particularly those with young children, feel more comfortable wearing well-designed masks in lighter, brighter colours.

“Obviously, a mask is very prominent – it’s right there on your face. A lot of customers told me they felt like a bank robber wearing some other face coverings. They felt they looked unapproachable and scary, which is a particular issue for those with kids. If masks can look nicer, then it will encourage more people to wear them and the more people will be protecting each other. I’ve had feedback from shoppers saying they are actually excited to wear their masks.”

Isobel Ridley is the founder of British brand Lavender Hill Clothing, which started selling triple-layer cotton face masks in April. The mask are sold in packs of three and are available in white, pink, navy, and denim blue. The pack retails for £25 and for each one sold, the brand donates a pack to the Katherine Low Settlement, which supports vulnerable people living in Battersea.

She agrees: “A big thing for lots of consumers is that if they do have to wear a mask, they want it to look as friendly as possible. They don’t want to look aggressive. A family member started talking to her two-year old son wearing a dark mask and he started crying.

“We wanted to create the safest masks possible while not taking any resources away from the NHS. Our masks are made from tightly woven layers and have an anti-bacterial finish that lasts for 40 to 50 washes. We’re looking into making masks that use a filtering fabric, but we don’t want to take that filtering fabric from other suppliers who need it for medical supplies.”

Keeping up with the sheer volume of demand has been a challenge for the label.

“I thought we’d sell around 100 masks, and we’ve sold thousands,” Ridley says. “We’ve been lucky that our factory has been able to ramp up production almost overnight.”

Contemporary US womenswear label Rails has shifted production in its factories across the US and Asia away from garments to make masks. It has donated 10,000 medical-grade masks to hospitals across the US and is also creating non-medical cotton face masks for consumers in both adult and children’s sizes. Both packs retail for $25 (£20). For each pack sold, Rails donates another to communities in need.

“Customers want to wear masks, but don’t know where to go to get them – it’s not something they’ve necessarily bought before,” explains founder Jeff Abrams. “We’ve priced them essentially at cost to get masks out to as many people as possible. As well as wanting to give back and protect resources for medical staff, making masks has allowed us to keep our factories and staff employed. Retailers haven’t been able to take in wholesale orders because stores are closed, so by switching production to masks rather than garments, we’ve been able to keep our team busy and invested in a great project that has become far bigger than we thought it would.”

Like Florence Bridge, Lavender Hill, and Rails, almost all the fashion brands and retailers currently selling masks have included a charity initiative and kept prices affordable to make it clear they do not wish to profiteer from the pandemic. Boohoo was criticised by trade union Usdaw and by nurses when it first start selling face masks in April – the retailer is now donating all of the proceeds from masks to NHS charities. Reformation has donated masks to medical staff and homeless charities. All profits from masks sold on Zalando will be donated to charities supporting areas across the globe particularly badly hit by the pandemic.

“We believe that everyone should have access to a mask. Providing affordable textile masks will help people to protect others around them and preserve medical masks for health care professionals,” explains the retailer’s director of sustainability, Kate Heiny. “We are very pleased to donate the profit generated from the sales of the textile masks to international efforts against the coronavirus.”

Masks are likely to be part of our new normal as the fallout from coronavirus reshapes daily life for months to come. Supply and demand of well-designed face masks looks set to increase – beauty brand Avon has announced plans to produce fashionable masks and marketplace Etsy reported a huge surge in demand for masks throughout April. However, brands and retailers will be wise to resist the urge to see this emerging category as a profit-making opportunity – and ensure they have a charitable element to keep consumers onside.