Masks hide half the face, but new designs have made them objects of expression

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Masks hide half the face, but new designs have made them objects of expression-- Beijing Review

Much of the world may be paralyzed by COVID-19, but not fashion. Face masks, the new accessory du jour amid the pandemic, have opened up a new avenue of creativity in the fashion industry.

It's impossible to say who took the lead in transforming face masks from bland medical equipment into fashion statements, as designers have been innovating the fabrics and products for a long time now. Since its inception in 2012, Off-White, a luxury streetwear brand from Italy, released series of face masks. In 2020, its masks became hot market items, even though they cost over $100 each.

Masks from other leading fashion brands—including Louis Vuitton (LV), Gucci, Fendi and Supreme—were also hot in the 2020 market. Sensing the opportunity, even some companies without a history of selling either fashion or medical products have jumped into the industry.

Fashionable and functional

At the 2021 Spring Festival gala, during a live broadcast by China Central Television on February 11, the masks worn by the audience on site quickly became a hot topic on the Internet. The bright-colored masks featured a festive design, with the image of the ox symbolizing 2021, the Year of the Ox in the Chinese zodiac.

SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile (SGMW), a vehicle manufacturing company in China, designed the masks. The company claimed they only made the masks as souvenirs for the gala audience and that they won't sell them to the public, but masks with the same design appeared on online shopping platforms shortly after the gala and have sold well.

SGMW wasn't the first to create a New Year-themed mask design. "Actually, over a month before the Spring Festival, we released a series of masks with festive designs for the festival," said Deng Xiang, Chief Executive Officer from a mask producing company.

The masks from Deng's company are red with several patterns, including the Chinese character fu (fortune) and the cartoon image of an ox. The masks made a big splash in the market. Within days, Deng's New Year mask received over 100,000 reviews on, a major online shopping platform in China. Many people bought the mask as a gift for family members and friends. "Producing face masks for years, I never before expected that a face mask could become a New Year gift," Deng said.

"In the early stage of the epidemic, we put on masks as a temporary precaution," Lin Xu, a 26-year-old from Beijing, told Beijing Review. "As the situation remains gloomy for months, we have realized masks might be a long-term necessity in our life. Replacing lipstick, the face mask has become the last thing I put on my face before stepping out each day."

As the epidemic raged on, Lin was soon fed up with regular medical face masks and started to look for more stylish designs. "Just as we change the color of our lipstick each day, we should also pick different masks to go with our clothes," Lin said.

Mask sellers have had the same idea. Recluse, a clothing brand created by two Chinese designers, made face masks for the first time this year. Made with silk, the face masks have four patterns and received good reviews for their unique design. "We made the masks at the request of our customers,"

Xu Xiaoyan, the brand's designer, told Beijing Review.

Lin searched online and found masks with various designs, but she has a concern: Are these masks functional? "Masks made with silk and pure cotton are more comfortable to wear, but over half of the online sellers told me that such masks can't function as medical masks," Lin said.

For customers, it shouldn't be an either-or choice—why can't the masks be both pretty and protective? At the Third China International Import Expo held in Shanghai in November 2020, 3M, the world's leading mask producer, displayed professional masks with hand-drawn patterns, making the company one of the most eye-catching brands at the event.

Off-White has designed some masks with a pocket inside the inner layer, so that users can insert a filter to make the mask more effective. Some of the masks sold online in China use the same solution. LV has suggested its customers wear an additional medical mask beneath the company's more aesthetic leather mask.

Masks hide half the face, but new designs have made them objects of expression-- Beijing Review

Art on masks

Wearing face masks isn't a new experience for many people in China. When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) hit the country in 2003, medical masks played a major role in the combat against the disease. Besides, since 2013, when Beijing and many cities in north China were engulfed in heavy smog, N95 face masks were recommended.

Designer Wang Zhijun began producing customized sneakers in 2008, utilizing skills he learned by studying traditional Chinese crafts. In 2013, he had a bold idea: using materials from his sneaker collection to make face masks.

In 2016, he placed a special face mask, made with materials from a pair of Yeezy Boost 350 sneakers, for auction on eBay. The mask was purchased at the surprisingly high price of $5,000. The high-profile sale brought Wang and his sneaker masks to the attention of global news outlets, including CNN and Reuters.

In 2017, Wang transformed an IKEA shopping bag into a face mask, and it became a hit on social media. Afterward, his designs continued to grow in prominence. "Since 2018, under the name of Maskology, I have attended several exhibitions in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Jerusalem and Shanghai," Wang told Beijing Review. "It is a very unique experience to talk with mask fans face to face and learn their ideas on mask design."

Wang has handcrafted over 300 sneaker masks. Many of his masks have been collected by celebrities, including NBA player James Harden and Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.

In the early stage of the pandemic in 2020, Wang received many messages from followers around the world complaining about mask shortages. Wang and his wife Duan Yutong spent one month developing a simple mask template and a tutorial guiding people how to make a mask from home materials. They translated the tutorial, Everyone Can Make a Mask, into eight languages and shared it online. For Wang, the face mask is more than a virus-blocking tool—it's a cultural phenomenon.

"In some countries like the Republic of Korea and Japan, some young people wear masks to express their attitude to some social issues or rejection of social life," Wang said. "Face masks can help them both to hide their identity and to express their ideas to some extent. Face masks have developed into a sub-culture and… a way of expression."

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