Face masks are now an everyday item for many people all over the world in the fight against coronavirus, but some designers are creating masks to express their creativity, combining fashion with function.
“Fashion designers have had to pivot based on the reduction in [customer] demand, especially those who previously relied on one-off couture [pieces]. Designers have had no choice but to adapt to the new conditions and to start producing items which are in need,” explains Carl Ellis, marketing manager of UK online store, The Mask Collective, which launched this year in response to the pandemic.
“In the beginning, the focus was on safety, but the more that people realise masks can also be fashionable, I think the demand will increase. People want to match their mask to their outfit, they want to still be fashionable and make a statement.”
Marc Carcillar: A homage to the Philippines
Fashion designer Marc Carcillar is owner of Marcopilipino and known for his terno, a traditional blouse and skirt made from local textiles. But since the pandemic hit, Carcillar has turned his attention to creating face masks using colourful local fabrics.
Carcillar’s latest face mask collection was created as a tribute to the different islands of the Philippines, with the aim of shedding light on how the tourism industry has been gravely affected by the current crisis. The collection was named ‘Las Islas Filipinas’ (the former Spanish name of the country), and the face masks depict the tropical islands of Palawan, Boracay, Guimaras, Casiguran and La Union.
“We created the masks to help the industry promote the beautiful islands here in the Philippines. Each mask is unique and colourful,” says Carcillar, adding that he developed at least 20 different iterations until he was happy with his first pattern for the Las Islas range.
Carcillar also reached out to Filipino ethnic groups who produce indigenous fabrics. He initially worked with the weavers in Mindanao using Yakan fabric and locals from the Cordillera province in Luzon. Then he approached suppliers in Iloilo and local groups in Bukidnon so he could use the Hablon fabric. For his future designs, Carcillar wants to reach out to the weavers from the more remote island of Basilan.
Carcillar also expresses his love for his homeland through videos and posts on social media, where he explains the detailed stories behind his products. Each mask is inspired by Filipino history. For example, the Principalia mask was named after the noble class who ruled in pueblos or towns during colonisation. The Paraiso mask was inspired by the Puerto Princesa Subterranean river, its pleated fabric resembles the rivers, caves and hills in the region.
“Marcopilipino was created because of my love for my country and the national dress. We wanted to bring awareness to the young, at least to make them aware that terno is not just for special events and occasions like the State of Nation Address and Buwan ng Wika. It is a symbol, our identity and something we can be proud of,” Carcillar proudly explains.
In May, Marcopilipino began supporting charitable organisation Project Pag-asa to help support local weavers, farmers, creatives, and frontliners. For every mask sold, 25 per cent of proceeds are donated to the project, 15 per cent go to the sewers and 10 per cent go to the farmers.
According to Carcillar, sales have been “quite high” in recent months, although since the lifting of restrictions, they have since slowed down. However, his next step is to add new designs and partner them with the terno.
John Herrera: Making waves in the UK
From the fashion runways in Manila and Europe, designer John Herrera has come a long way from creating couture gowns to now sewing face masks and trench coats. In fact, earlier this year, Herera was one of three winners of a mask design competition organised by Deshabillé magazine in Milan.
“Since I have now been designing neoprene trench coats, we have a lot of excess fabric, also called ‘cabbage’ in the industry. These are cut-offs from production that are too small to be used to make clothes, but are big enough to make masks,” he says. “They could not be any more sustainable.”
According to Herera, one of the challenges of his face masks is that unlike his couture gowns, they are not made-to-order and can’t be easily adjusted to suit each of his customers.
“You will sometimes get orders from clients who have a big face. Some of them have chubby cheeks, some have small faces, so when we get complaints about these, they have to be returned and refunded,” he says.
“Surprisingly, not a lot of people have returned. I love the masks [and] my designs are still very unique. I’m proud because whenever you buy a mask, you really get a sense of how I designed it. It [features] good cutting and I always incorporate a little bit of the nostalgic tailoring in my designs.”
Herera also recently released a more glamorous version of his face masks, this time using sequins, which customers can combine with beautiful dresses or suits – perfect for the upcoming festive season
Art meets science
Despite the development of beautifully crafted face masks, there has been debate around whether they actually offer users proper protection.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), face masks should incorporate three layers of synthetic non-woven materials with filtration layers in the middle. They should have different thickness, have various levels of fluid-resistance and two levels of filtration. Customers should also socially distance themselves where possible, avoid touching their face and regularly wash their hands.
WHO also advises that governments should encourage the use of non-medical fabric masks, which can act as a barrier to prevent the spread of the virus where physical distancing of at least one metre is not possible.
According to Carcillar, Marcopilipino face masks all meet WHO requirements and have since evolved to feature four layers, as well as unique ear loops made from handmade neoprene and an adjustable stopper.
The masks’ first layer is made of local fabrics. The second and third layers are made from water-repellant microfibre and the fourth cotton layer makes it comfortable to wear and absorbs sweat.
From the beginning, The Mask Collective committed to offering high quality, reusable fabric face masks that combine form and function, safety and style, says Ellis. The retailer’s masks are all double-layered, using breathable, washable fabrics and according to Ellis, they abide by the guidelines of the WHO as closely as possible.
“We will never sell disposable masks, nor those which deplete the resources of medical professionals who need them [the] most,” Ellis explains.
The site also publishes blog posts to educate customers about how to stay safe in style.
As fashion designers adapt to the new normal in the runways, it looks like 2020 is now the beginning of the new era for this industry worldwide.
This article was originally published in the Inside Retail Asia November quarterly magazine.