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Quirky, elegant, stylish — designer masks are a big hit as world learns to live with Covid

Meant to mitigate the risk of Covid transmission, the humble cloth mask is becoming a fashion statement.

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New Delhi: They are available in silk, and feature a range of designs from elaborate artistic motifs to quirky cartoons. There are plain ones available in a range of colours, and bridal variants have emerged too. 

Meant to mitigate the risk of Covid transmission, the humble cloth mask is becoming a fashion statement as the world learns to live with a pandemic that is not expected to go away anytime soon. And some of India’s biggest fashion names have stepped in to tap the trend, churning out designer masks for those who won’t let a pandemic get in the way of style.

These include designers and brands like House of Masaba, Louis Phillipe, W, Fastrack and Aurelia, which are selling the masks on their online platforms.

The business is still in its early stages, but experts predict masks can become a $3 billion industry over the next two years.

The idea of cashing in on a health crisis, however, remains controversial, with fashion major Sabyasachi Mukherjee dismissing it as “obnoxious”. 

The prospect of selling cloth masks, available for as low as Rs 2-4 apiece online, for hundreds of rupees puts brands at the risk of coming off as promoters of ugly consumerism. But insiders point out that the idea has emerged as a lifeline for businesses left struggling by the lockdown lull.

Also Read: Widespread use of face masks could prevent further waves of Covid-19: UK study

A popular idea

Earlier this week, Japanese apparel brand Uniqlo announced the launch of its reusable ‘cool and dry’ masks. 

House of Masaba, owned by fashion doyenne Masaba Gupta, had initially started an initiative called ‘Maskaba’ to produce non-surgical masks for donation. This initiative later developed into a range of designer masks for sale on their website. 

Priced between Rs 700 and Rs 900 apiece, these masks have helped the business house keep afloat in difficult times, Gupta said in a statement on 15 April.

She added that a team of three workers was involved in the production of the masks, which are stitched from fabric meant for clothes.

Fastrack, an Indian accessory brand, launched its range of masks a week ago. With its four-ply masks (4-, 3-ply etc suggest level of filtering capacity), priced between Rs 500 and Rs 800 for a set of 3-4 pieces, the brand says it is trying to encourage their use.  

Kanwalpreet Walia, head of marketing, fragrance and accessories division, at Fastrack, told ThePrint that they launched the new line of masks “to equip” people working across industries with effective protection.

The response within a week has been encouraging enough for them to plan to expand this product, she added.

A spokesperson for Fabindia, another Indian fashion giant dabbling in masks, offered a similar assessment. “The response for our range of masks, called ‘The Hope Mask’, has been positive and we intend to escalate the scale of production in the coming months,” the spokesperson said.

Colourful with hand-block prints, the Fabindia masks come in packs of three, priced at Rs 100, and five, which costs Rs 150. A set of four pleated masks is available for Rs 170.

“This initiative is creating livelihood opportunities while serving the requirements of our communities,” the spokesperson added. In the wake of the lockdown, they said, the masks have become an avenue for job creation. “With the current demand, the company is currently making close to 50,000 masks a day,” the spokesperson said.

Alicia Souza, a popular illustrator on Instagram, is among those who have joined the designer-mask bandwagon, and has started making prototypes for masks designed specially for the youth. Her introductory post to the idea garnered a massive response from her followers. 

Since her masks are designed with the Gen Z in mind, she told ThePrint, they “will be quirky and fun”. She added that she is also designing masks for kids, which will be printed with drawings and fun quotes.

Talking about the pricing, she said, “We want to make our masks affordable, which is why we have priced them at Rs 300 apiece and Rs 999 for a pack of 5.” 

Also Read: Face masks — the ultimate pro-freedom, pro-life fashion accessory

Market potential

Walia said the market for masks is “at its peak right now” and is expected to “remain strong for the next 8-9 months”.

Agreed Ashok Juneja, president of the Textile Association of India, a New Delhi-based industrial body. “Although the market for masks is in its nascent stages and it is too early to predict but, from our estimates, it is expected to grow to $3 billion in the next two years.”

Snapdeal, a popular Indian e-shopping platform, said sales of designer masks have grown by seven times. “Previously, riding and cycling masks were a popular item sold mostly in smaller towns of India. But with the new rules we have witnessed a demand for designer masks. With a 7X increase in the sale of designer masks, metro cities have become the largest buyers for designer masks,” a company spokesperson said. 

In Tamil Nadu’s Tiruppur, ‘the knitwear capital’ of the country, the advent of designer masks symbolises a new avenue for earnings. Raja M. Shanmugham, president of the Tiruppur Exporters Association, said the city is equipped to produce masks for the entire population of India. 

“The state government has opened up avenues for export of masks but we are waiting for some kind of product standardisation to be announced so that we can produce at a swift pace,” he told ThePrint.

“With 1,500 units directly exporting garments and 10,000 units engaged in ancillary activities, the Tiruppur cluster is good enough to make masks for the entire 130 crore population of the country in 20 days,” he said.

For now, the units in Tiruppur are producing masks in line with orders placed by brands.

Not all designers agree

The trend of designer masks has critics too. Sabyasachi Mukherjee, one of the most sought-after fashion designers in the country, said in an interview to Harper’s Bazaar that the idea was offensive and obnoxious.

“I hope we don’t put privilege on things that are essential for health,” he added. “If I had to produce simple masks in my factory as a vendor I would readily do that but I will never put my labour to work on a designer face mask.”

Across the world, several fashion giants such as Louis Vuitton and Burberry have deployed their facilities to produce protective gear, including masks, but these are meant to be donated to frontline healthcare workers.

Daizy Tanwar, who runs an Ahmedabad-based fabric designing company called Dot, said she had been handing out complimentary masks to customers ever since they were mandatory. “We design cotton-based comfortable work wear for women, whatever cloth is left over from the fabric is used to make masks for our clients. We don’t charge them for it since their cost is negligible to us,” she said. 

She added that the reason why most designers had started selling masks is the slack in the market due to the lockdown. “It’s a means to make quick money,” she said.

However, she added that a few of her customers subscribe to the idea of matching masks with their attire, since they “don’t want to go to the lengths”. “A senior executive with a popular radio channel snubbed the idea and said she will keep a range of masks to complement her clothes but won’t match them and end up looking like a candy,” Tanwar added.

This report has been updated with additional information

Also Read: Face masks for all can help contain virus and end lockdowns, new global study says


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