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Masks Aren’t Just Protection, They’re Fashion

By Juliana Walter & Emily Banaitis 

Flowers, stripes, logos, quotes; everywhere you go, everyone seems to have a unique mask from the person next to them. While COVID-19 at first posed an issue for the fashion industry with millions of Americans losing their jobs and the majority of the country not leaving their homes, Etsy and private store owners have been capitalizing on the high demand for stylish and comfortable cloth masks. 

Chantal Hebert is the owner of Elegant Protection, an online mask store sold through Etsy. Hebert has been sowing for over 50 years in both the commercial and private sector. 

“[I worked] 25 years for an underwear designer,” said Herbert. “Masks are very similar.” 

With pressure from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost all states implemented mandatory mask policies for public spaces by the end of April. This resulted in a huge shortage of masks in both online and in-person stores. Hebert, like many others, put their skills to use to help with this issue.

Just like Herbert, Gigi Shaffer, a senior communications major at The University of Tampa, decided to help with the storage of masks. There were only so many times she could scroll through Netflix watching shows or browsing the Internet, until she couldn’t take it anymore and she decided to start her own business.

Suddenly the surge in mask sales motivated Schaffer to finally start her shop. She remembers how her idea came full circle, in a grocery store with a man who was standing only two feet away from her. 

“I turned around and looked at him and went “hm” and he was one of those people who had his shirt pulled up over his nose and I was like “Okay you are one of those,” said Shaffer. 

Stylish masks are not just trending in the United States. Stephen DeMent, of Funk and Chill on Etsy, based his company out of Thailand when he moved there from Seattle three years ago.

His brand focuses on boho chic looks. Funk and Chill has a small team who each have their own prints, styles, and sizes that they are responsible for making each day.

From designing labels at Saks Fifth Avenue and Henri Bendel to being a fashion assistant at Vogue, Melody Acree, Fashion Marketing & Management professor at The Art Institute of Tampa, has worked in the fashion industry for decades.

“Masks are definitely labeled as fashion now,” said Acree. “Most people are concerned about whether it coordinates with what they are wearing. Especially if you are out and about, you need many of them so [masks have] really taken over the industry.”

Acree has been monitoring street fashion since the beginning of the pandemic. Despite the stay-at-home orders in most areas around the world, designers were still creating pieces within their own spaces.

“There’s many ranges of styles, colors, and brands available,” said Acree. “But you can still often recognize name brand masks, like colorful Kate Spades or the darker, more athletic Adias. Now even the bridal industry is doing masks that are more formal and go with the gowns and suits.”

For Schaffer’s designs, she bases her creations off her own personal color scheme. Featuring a minimalist look, the white and black masks can go with any color of clothing you choose to wear.

 “My personal taste is very neutral and simple.” said Shaffer. One of the best features of her masks? They are reusable so therefore they are environmentally friendly which is another reason why Gigi used the reusable masks.

Online mask shops on Etsy and personal sites have inspired other companies to start more mask-based products on their websites as well, according to Acree. Vogue is now even putting out face mask chains/necklaces.

In May, the New York Times reported that online shopping sales had increased 40% by the middle of April. While Amazon orders can account for a lot of this increase, Etsy has been growing in popularity for the past few years and gained even more traction during the global pandemic.

Etsy store owners, like Herbert, have found the rapidly growing online shopping market to be exhausting. On average, she makes around 500 masks a week, working roughly between 70 and 80 hours.

“This pandemic is really getting either the best or the worst out of people,” said Hebert. “I’ve gotten very mean people calling what I do a scam operation and even one calling my home to harass me. Then I also have some buyers who are really sweet, placed over a dozen orders, and recommended me to [their] friends.”

Haley Ringenberg blogs about her “every day and athleisure” fashion guide. She partners with brands and sells her fashion looks through social media. Currently, she is facing the same fashion dilemma as many other women in America.

“Getting the perfect mask to match my outfit can be very hard sometimes,” said Ringenberg. “I tend to go for the bigger name brands while shopping in-person, but I have found great ones on shops like Etsy though. Everything is just taking so long to ship, which is understandable because so many people are ordering.”

Influencers on social media are known for their fashion sense and beauty hacks. Social media users can follow the looks that they want to see on their feed.

“I’ve seen so many other influencers posting their quarantine outfits,” said Ringenberg. “It’s the newest fashion statement to match the patterns of your outfit to the pattern on your mask. It’s really fun to see.”

But it is not just masks that have taken over in the fashion world. Designers have had to make creative solutions for selling clothes even when society switches to virtual and remote environments.

“Zoom has taken over [in regards to education and work] so the emphasis is obviously from the waist up, focusing on shirts, hair, makeup, and jewelry,” said Acree. “The fashion industry has really had to adapt in the past couple of months.” 

Schaffer plans to release more than just masks next. She is trying to expand her business as part of the bigger movement of online shopping. 

 “I really like simple designs and colors but I understand not everyone wears neutral colors. I am going to try and move more towards pastel colors,” said Shaffer, “The next drop is going to be hoodies, bucket hats, and then masks but I am dyeing them to match the hoodies and bucket hats so everything goes together and is more cohesive.”

Despite the mandatory mask policies, there are still individuals who do not believe in being forced into wearing a mask. Designers who have their own shops or Etsy accounts are trying to provide comfortable masks for everyone — even those who do not willingly wear them.

 “There has been a lot of controversy surrounding COVID-19 in general but my mom & family are in the medical field so it is not really that controversial to me.” said Shaffer, “At the end of the day if you are wearing a mask in the worst case scenario you are wearing a piece of cloth over your face and best case scenario you aren’t getting yourself or someone else sick.” 

While Shaffer does not see her store as a political statement, she is committed to the idea of giving back a portion of her proceeds to a cause in need.  

“I really want to work on building a community, not just a brand. At the end of the day I care more about impacting people’s lives than making a profit, said Shaffer, “I’m donating 15% of sales every three months to a different charity and I want to focus on making it a safe space for people to care about each other.”

The current charity of the month? The Black Lives Matter movement. Shaffer penned a blog post titled “15%” where she explains how important it is for her to practice compassion towards herself and others.

Since the mask mandate seems to not be going away anytime soon, business owners have to get creative. For Schaffer, Herbert, and DeMent, they are already planning for their new designs in masks. 
 “[Mask fashion] is not going away anytime soon,” said Acree. “In my opinion, the trend is definitely here to stay. I’m excited to see people get even more creative with them.”

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