Can Fashion Face Masks Survive In a Post-Vaccine World?

Hillary Taymour, the designer behind the New York clothing label Collina Strada, spent the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic making face masks. Every morning, she would walk her dog Powwow from her Brooklyn apartment over the Williamsburg bridge into Chinatown, where she has a studio. Anyone who bought her clothes received a free mask; people could also buy tie-dye ones. For each one sold, Taymour donated five to hospital workers.

“Every person in the world needs a mask to go outside,” Taymour told The Daily Beast at the time. “Think about how much random demand I’m going to get with my small following.”

For Taymour, mask-making was a moral imperative first, business strategy second. She later told GQ that the accessory and the buzz around it raised her brand’s profile—Google searches for Collina Strada reportedly “skyrocketed [by] 600%.

It was an accidental boost—as Taymour told this website last April, making masks just felt like something she had to do. “I think the only brands who are going to survive this are people who are on the frontlines keeping the community safe and having a voice,” she said. “If you’re silent, why are people going to buy $2,000 worth of clothes from you?”

Masks, it turns out, are worth much more than $2,000. In less than a year, the accessory has become a ubiquitous, if sometimes (stupidly) controversial, sight. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour championed her favorite brands. Jill Biden matched her seafoam blue Inauguration Day jacket to her mask. Etsy’s revenue doubled year over year thanks to the pandemic. Eleven percent of its gross merchandise sales came from—you guessed it—face masks.

As GQ noted last year, the “mask market” could reach “a staggering $6 billion by 2021.” But this month, the CDC eased restrictions on face coverings for the vaccinated. New York City just lifted its mask mandate. Big box grocery stores like Costco, Trader Joe’s, Kroger, and Fred Meyer followed suit. (According to a survey done by the University of Southern California, 90 percent of participants said they wore masks while grocery shopping.)

So, could the mask bubble burst? It certainly seems to be a possibility. CBS News reported that companies “face a mask surplus as sales evaporate following new CDC guidelines.” Dov Charney, the founder of Los Angeles Apparel (and former CEO of American Apparel) said that “mask sales have dissipated to almost nothing.”

Maya Gorgoni, who founded Royal Jelly Harlem, a label that Meghan Markle plucked to cover her famous face last year, said that this week has been “pretty quiet” in terms of sales.

Though some of Collina Strada’s masks are now on sale, down to $70 from $100, Taymour isn’t so quick to call it a dead trend. “We’re not investing in making new styles, but we still have some,” she told The Daily Beast. “We’re a global brand, so I think this caters to different parts of the world at different times.”

The appetite has decreased, but we have superfans who buy every color, just because they know my mask fits them.

Hillary Taymour

Taymour said that she “still has mask orders in place” for the brand’s upcoming fall collection, though the demand is “much smaller.”

“The appetite has decreased, but we have superfans who buy every color, just because they know my mask fits them,” she added. “Masks got us through a really hard, scary two months for sure, but it is not our core business anymore. That was a great thing to have a business with for a minute, but not forever. And no one was expecting it to last forever.”

Taymour believes masks should be “kept as a stable in one’s wardrobe when they need it. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, if there will be another strain. It’s not the time to dispose of mask-wearing, it’s just an adjusting time period. If we’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that things can go in any direction.”

Alexandra O’Neill, the designer behind Markarian who made Jill Biden’s Inauguration Day outfit (and mask), never really relied on the accessory for her brand. It was never part of the “main collection,” but she offered intricate, embroidered white masks to coordinate with gowns for brides throwing smaller “COVID weddings.”

“We haven’t really heard anything about mask orders over the past couple of weeks,” O’Neill said. “But I believe that masks work and we’ve all gotten used to wearing them. I think it will stick with us when you’re sick or when flu season comes along. I think it’s something we would potentially keep doing.”

We still see a demand. We’re selling a lot of masks everyday, but nowhere near what it used to be when there was that crazy vacuum in the market.

Lia Kes

Lia Kes is another New York designer who got into the mask game early. She sells silk options that were developed with her friend Dr. Galit Sacajiu. At the height of the pandemic, Kes donated a mask for each one purchased.

“We still see a demand,” Kes said. “We’re selling a lot of masks every day, but nowhere near what it used to be when there was that crazy vacuum in the market. But people definitely still buy masks. I think in the past winter it became part of the way people dressed up, and that will continue. I see it as an integrated part of what a designer has to offer, and it’s not going anywhere. I also think that in people’s minds, a mask is not a curse word anymore. It doesn’t limit you in any way. You can still be yourself and wear a mask.”

Sarah Law runs KARA, a New York based accessories line. She grew up in Hong Kong, where mask use has been normalized “for years.” Her offering—a sparkling, crystal mesh mask—costs $95; maybe not for everyday use, but a good choice for going out.

“Our masks are noel and are really great for dressing up and finishing a look,” Law said. “The masks are exclusive to our website and primarily serve clients in NYC and LA that we are seeing still plan on wearing masks when they go out, even as the city opens up.”

The brand bought mask inventory “for a few more weeks” and expect to “sell through them.” Masks were never a huge lifeline for KARA, and sales didn’t impact her business “either way.” Law currently has no plans to make more masks, but she’s “happy” to reconsider “if it feels relevant for our customer.”

“Masks felt of the moment when we added them to the line, and a way for people to have a bit of fun in a hard time,” Law said.