Face Masks are the New IT Bag

Understanding larger social and economic trends is an important part of the design process in fashion. These larger trends have a downstream effect on color, silhouette and texture from season to season. And so fashion designers and merchandisers work with their teams, and with external agencies, often a full year out, to determine how these trends might integrate best with their brand vision. Because these teams are working so far in advance, planning for trends is an inexact science at best, albeit easier today with the help of algorithmic data.

However, even this data couldn’t have predicted Covid-19 and it’s immediate effect on fashion trends, leaving brands to rethink their plans mid-stream for fall 2020 and spring 2021. In many cases, companies had to stop their processes altogether as studios and offices closed. And those that could, pivoted to making personal protective equipment, such as masks and shields, to take advantage of government contracts, thus keeping their employees at work, and supporting the needs of their communities.

As the pandemic wore on, and masks were required in many places, demand rose for more PPE—no longer as simple protective gear, but as a fashion statement. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House in the United States Congress became an overnight sensation with her coordinated suits and masks. Masks also made their way to the runway in the spring 2021 shows and are predicted to make an appearance in future collections according to Keanan Duffty, fashion designer and director of the Fashion Management graduate program at Parsons School of Design. He observes, “During flu season, face masks were the polite society norm in Asia. Now, most of the rest of the world has accepted face masks and therefore they will become a seasonal fashion trend in order to combat flu and seasonal allergies.”

As with many fashion trends, what once served a utility, such as a jacket lapel, a riveted pocket or an upturned shirt collar, is now simply a preferred style without connection to function. And customers certainly don’t require brands to educate them on these histories . However, it’s an altogether different thing when PPE is serving a real health service in addition to being stylish, which becomes a unique balancing act for a brand.

Keanan notes that, “Subjectively, brands look like they are cashing in. For example, Spandau Ballet ‘True’ face mask. Perhaps facemasks are becoming the new slogan tee-shirt?”

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A tee-shirt with a real purpose beyond the logo or slogan itself, at least for now.

And so, the question then becomes whether or not there is a place for luxury brands to provide customers with pandemic-related accessories, such as Louis Vuitton’s almost $1,000 face shield and Burberry’s $100+ face masks.

Keanan remarks that “The luxury sector has begun to appropriate streetwear ideas including sneakers and tracksuits, so luxury versions of pandemic-related accessories were the obvious next step. And he concludes, “They provide ‘status-based protection” for the luxury consumer and are the new IT bag.”

After all, it wasn’t more than 25 years ago that fashion apparel companies began including handbags as part of their collections, and leather goods companies became purveyors of ready-to-wear. Perhaps in 25 years time, when the pandemic is a historical footnote, customers will still be wearing masks and shields without any real connection to how they saved lives in 2020. And brands will consider PPE accessories as an essential part of their offering.

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