In our current coronavirus crisis, everybody has complaints about face masks and your humble blogger is no exception: They fog my glasses in the night air, they irritate my beard, they tug on my ears, they make my face look enormous, they’ve somehow become political statements...
But, if you’ve been venturing into grocery stores and food pickup counters, you’ve gotten a preview of the massive mask market that is upon us. Even if half the population decides they don’t want to wear one (more on that later), we’re still talking millions of masks as people begin to venture into public once again, and as savvy consumers transition from single-use to reusable. This, of course, is music to a besieged fashion industry’s ears.
Indeed, for fashion manufacturers and retailers, the last several months have been as bad as any in industry history, but the prospect of serving a nascent, burgeoning market is welcome news. Sure, it was the wild west out in the mask market for a while--dominated by single-use with shortages and gouging everywhere--but with health experts giving reusable masks their blessing, established players are starting to get in on it and supply is starting to catch up to demand.
But beyond the fashion industry, masks have also made the human face into a moving billboard, representing branding opportunities for a range of companies. So, however uncomfortable they may be on our faces and however uncomfortable it may be to talk about, let’s go ahead and put in the fashion retail market research into what Angel Obasi calls “a necessary fashion statement” as we attempt to contextualize and forecast reusable masks’ rapid, multi-directional growth.
Masks Over the Last 30 Years: MJ, SARS, and Politics
Though it gives us the heebie jeebies to mention his name, it is interesting to consider that, on this matter at least, Michael Jackson was ahead of the curve, parading about in stylized masks, perhaps to avoid airborne infection, perhaps to just hide his face.
More pertinently, fashionable face masks rose to popularity in Asian urban centers in response to SARS and other airborne infections that did not wreak havoc in the United States. Cities in places like Hong Kong, China, and Japan, masks have become a sign of civic and social responsibility as much as a personal protection measure and a statement of personal style.
Fashion designers and public health officials alike hope that this also becomes the case domestically, but sadly, masks have become politicized. We don’t take political sides in this market research blog, but we would be remiss if we did not point out that every leading health authority concurs that masks at the very least help to slow coronavirus’s spread. Experts also agree that single-use and N95 masks should be saved for essential workers, particularly frontline health care professionals.
But sometimes experts’ consensus is not enough for everybody, which is why, according to fashion anthropologist Christine Wu, “Whether it will take off as a fashion trend here in the US depends on whether stigma around wearing a mask can be changed.”
Nonetheless, a large segment of the population is beginning to transition from single-use masks to reusable cloth ones, and are even beginning to coordinate their masks with their outfits. It’s become a big enough trend that Vogue recently released an 100-deep list of the most fashionable, trendy, and affordable masks available (I can’t wait to see what masks Anna Wintour will wear out and about).
The Rise of Fashionable Face Masks, a Rundown
So, yeah, if Vogue is forecasting a fashion trend, even in this topsy turvy times, it’s a pretty good indicator of what’s to come, and what’s already here.
Shelly Horst, the co-founder of a boutique selling matching masks and bikini tops, believes fashionable masks are only starting their ascendance and that the market will only expand: "Going forward people will need multiple masks in rotation especially as things begin to open back up. Having a mask that matches exactly is a fun fashion move, but matching through colour stories will start to happen as well. Considering what mask to wear will become a part of planning an outfit."
It’s already starting, with consumers buying multi-packs to coordinate colors. My mother, for example, just bought three masks from Anthropologie for $21...and another three from Levi for $15. Each one is a different color and pattern, and when we met for a socially distant park date this last weekend, her mask perfectly matched her Sunday-afternoon-in-the-park outfit.
For those who don’t want to put in the work of hunting and gathering, there’s already a subscription club for masks; for $9.99 a month, MaskClub will send customers a new reusable mask each month.
Some companies like H&M, Zara, and Christian Siriano began producing masks months ago, some exclusively for health care workers and other frontline employees. This act of service has been beneficial across the board, as one fashion writer recently noted: “Fashion brands who have been able to pivot to making masks right now are crucial. Everyone benefits: The brands who are losing money, the healthcare workers, and the civilians who are in need of masks.”
Others like RentTheRunway are offering charity incentives, donating masks to health care workers and frontline employees for each mask purchased.
And then there is the luxury segment. Givenchy now offers a mask and cap combo that goes for (brace yourself) over $500. Rag & Bone, known for (lovely) pants starting at $300, are more reasonable when it comes to masks, offering a 3-pack for $55. There are also offerings from Gucci, Channel, and Balenciaga, with price tags that you would expect but are nonetheless staggering. And there are innumerable independent, boutique designed masks permeating Instagram--there will probably be hundreds of new offerings by the time we have published this blog.
The Man in the Ironic Mask
But as far as luxury goes, there are some concerns related both to tact and ethics.
Tact first. Look, I am firmly in the “all masks are good masks” category, but I understand criticisms of wearing a pricey designer mask in a pandemic that is disproportionately threatening impoverished communities and households. Rather than making due with a run-of-the-mill reusable mask and donating the balance to these vulnerable communities, people purchase pricey protection for themselves and that can feel, well, a bit out of touch.
And then there are concerns about pricing, about high end masks raising the price for masks in general by shifting the market. Indeed, one style reporter worries that the coming hyper-luxury segment stands to amorally gouge consumers: “As the pandemic continues to spread, I anticipate that some high-end brands might charge higher prices [for masks] and capitalize on the fact that people are scared.” While we share her passion for fashion, we do not share her concern--with the serviceable reusable masks going for as little as $2 each, there are many (many!) affordable alternatives.
So, we understand what she’s getting at, but, from where we sit, the more masks the better.
Until there is a vaccine, people will be looking for a whole range of masks. Sure, some will have an entire closet of Christian Dior masks, but for most people, masks will become a spectrum. You’ll have your everyday errand masks, your exercise masks, your fun masks, and, yes, your special occasion, relatively pricier mask that matches your special occasion, relatively pricier outfit.
But it won’t stop there. No doubt we will soon see the Build-A-Bear equivalent of mask design, where customers can upload designs and even photos to print onto masks for delivery. There will be more hand-crafted and made-to-order masks, a category already blowing up on Etsy.
And then there are the branding opportunities. You probably don’t need me to point this out for you, but masks are generally sitting right at eye-level--more so than branded shirts or even hats, masks are as prominent a branding opportunity as we have ever seen. Thus, there will be more free reusable masks from brands (like this pull-over Sierra Nevada mask your humble blogger’s boyfriend rocked last weekend), as well as free reusables from malls and other indoor retail centers who are already required to provide masks and might as well get their brand on.
There will also be more branded masks for sports teams, bands, neighborhoods, events, and other social identifiers. We will start to see mask collateral given away at corporate events and by field reps once we figure out business travel again.
And, yes, there will be more masks built around conspicuous consumption. Burberry plaid, Chanel’s two Cs, Louis’s LV.
More masks, more business, more safety. We can’t ask masks to fix fast fashion sustainability issues or labor practices, we can’t ask them to end economic stratification and overpriced luxury fashion. We can just expect them to do what experts tell us they do, protect us, and then let the fashion forward among us have some fun with it.
Coronavirus Fashion Retail Market Research
We’d love to be optimistic about coronavirus’s imminent decline, but recent spikes in the sunbelt, among other discouraging news, tells us that we might have to learn to live with coronavirus before we figure out how to kill it. People are realizing this, more people will soon.
And like we said, the attendant opportunities are not just for fashion brands big and small (though they stand to make a killing by keeping people alive). It’s also time for non-fashion companies to think about how masks can be tastefully and appropriately branded, and that means market research. It’s easy to see the writing on the wall, sure, but it’s way easier to see it on somebody’s face.
I, personally, greeted masks with open arms but not because I am a stalwart of public health. It’s just that your humble blogger long ago declared war on the sun, wearing huge hats and gigantic glasses while saturated in sunblock. The masks, literally, have got me covered.
So, I say bring ‘em on! I don’t need anything flashy...but this $80 hand-embroidered number will do just fine.