Matthews believes these factors will give CastleGrade an edge over the disposable surgical masks and reusable fabric masks that millions of Australians are now wearing on a daily basis to prevent transmission of Covid-19.
“So many people just rushed into getting masks. What they didn’t stop to think about was why the initial recommendation for people in the community was not to wear masks,” Matthews told Inside Retail.
“One of the reasons was that masks – except for the high-grade ones for medical professionals – don’t really provide a lot of protection…fabric masks in particular, which is the only reusable option most people have now.”
In Victoria, the only state or territory where face masks are currently required, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends using fabric masks with three layers of different types of fabric, including a water-resistant outer layer. But most fabric masks available through retailers don’t meet these requirements.
Like N95 respirators, CastleGrade masks form a seal around the mouth and nose, so contaminated air cannot get in or out without passing through a replaceable four-ply filter, which has been tested to block microparticles at over 95 per cent efficacy.
But at $59.95 per mask, not counting the cost of the filters, the average consumer may not consider this level of protection entirely necessary.
That is why Matthews is targeting people who cannot socially distance due to the nature of their job, such as hairdressers, dentists and physios, and businesses that provide PPE to staff as part of their Covid Safe requirements.
“Most companies do supply their workers with masks, but I’ve got two concerns. One is that disposable masks cause a great amount of waste and a lot of cost, but the bigger concern from a health perspective is that they’re not disposing of them regularly enough,” he said.
“Think of all the people out there that get their one surgical mask. They take it off at lunchtime, put it on the counter, then put it back on. That might happen three or four times a day, and it’s not safe.”
Matthews said he has started to have conversations with businesses in Victoria, but most of them are hesitant to place an order without knowing exactly when they will be able to reopen.
“That’s the thing that’s holding us back at the moment,” he said. “Businesses are waiting to know that they’re going to open before they invest more in PPE. That’s particularly true for the likes of hairdressers.”
It’s a different story in the US, where Dan Castle, a brand specialist who has worked with Martha Stewart and Jason Wu, soft launched CastleGrade masks in May. There are still over 40,000 new coronavirus cases a day there.
Matthews declined to provide sales figures, but said the launch was “very successful” and that stock is short due to the high demand.
A difference of opinion
Covid-19 has created a massive new market for face masks estimated to be worth US$20 billion by 2025, according to US-based consulting firm Arizton. And countless new brands have popped up hoping to grab a slice of it.
CastleGrade masks, however, were already in development in November 2019, a month before the first reported cases of the novel coronavirus. Israeli entrepreneur and inventor Anna Grinvald had the idea for a reusable respirator mask after visiting her mother in an aged care home and seeing the drawbacks of other designs.
After Covid-19 hit, Castle came on board as an investor to scale up production and help bring the masks to market. Matthews became involved through Castle, a close friend, after parting ways with Brand Collective, where he was CEO for over five years.
According to Matthews, his departure was partly due to a difference of opinion with Brand Collective’s owner Anchorage Capital Partners about the future direction of the business.
“Financially, we were coping quite well through the pandemic period. The JobKeeper subsidy is an enormous contribution to retail businesses, and we had also negotiated significant relief from landlords. Those deals had put us in a pretty good position in the near term,” he explained.
But with the federal wage subsidy due to end for many businesses on September 28, the landscape is about to become more challenging. And retailers are faced with the choice of either battening down the hatches and preparing for the worst case scenario, or investing in their brand and online channels to consolidate their market position and come out in a stronger position.
“It’s fair to say I subscribe to the latter philosophy more, and the owners had a more defensive strategy,” Matthews said.