The advent of ‘designer’ face masks has led to a fair bit of pearl clutching in the past few weeks. Fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee has vowed never to make them, calling them obnoxious and offensive. “We are talking about a health crisis and I hope we don’t put privilege on things that are essential for health,” he told Harper’s Bazaar India editor Nonita Kalra over a video conference last month. But before we take Mukherjee’s personal views as gospel, it is perhaps worthwhile to explore the idea of this new fashion category — and make no mistake, it will be a new category in fashion retail — a little more.
The reality is that the coronavirus is here to stay, at least till we have a vaccine. Meanwhile, the face mask has transcended its utilitarian image and become emblematic of the world’s many problems in 2020. We have laughed at the irony of France making masks compulsory but still denying Muslim women their right to cover their faces in accordance with their faith. And we have shaken our heads at how US president Trump refuses to wear one even against his own administration’s strictest advisories. At home, PM Modi is known to begin his televised broadcasts to the nation wearing a ‘gamcha’ to cover his nose and mouth that he takes off when he begins speaking. These and many other occurrences have made masks one of the biggest talking points of the year. By that logic alone, the fashion industry would be remiss in its duty if they didn’t ‘design’ face masks at this time. After all, fashion represents the zeitgeist and responds to what is happening in the world at large.
Besides, the Kolkata-based couturier’s comment is telling. He looks at masks as essential to health, even though they classify as protective equipment. The masks being made by Namrata Joshipura, for instance, will have a filter for safety, yet will also be ‘designed’ as per her aesthetics. “I’m not competing with anyone making medical-grade masks, neither am I marketing them as anything else than what they are,” says the designer, who is also an avid runner and has often been seen wearing face masks for the past two years or so on her social media. “I’m not trying to monetise a global pandemic; I’m responding to a demand that will arise in the times to come, when people may not want to wear medical-grade masks in social situations.” Soon to be launched on her website, her masks will be priced between ₹2,500 and ₹3,500.
By contrast, designer Krsnaa Mehta’s label, India Circus, is offering printed face masks at ₹199, available to be shipped across the country. His website mentions that these are reusable, as are Joshipura’s. And even with their cost difference, both are priced well above the usual medical-grade masks available at chemist shops that retail for ₹20. As time passes, we will see many more designers come up with their versions—many of them have already produced masks for charity, or even for their workers and factory teams. It’s only natural that they make the same for retail.
In fact, at the time of writing this article, designer JJ Valaya released two sketches of masks on his official Instagram handle, terming them ‘the new essentials’. He plans to give them as add-ons to all Valaya purchases, and may also decide to retail them in the future. “Over time,” he added, “they will become part of everyone’s daily dressing needs because the psychological impact of the pandemic will outlast the pandemic itself.”
The sustainability argument
Lest we forget, medical-grade masks are usually of the use-and-throw variety, whereas designer masks are designed to be reusable, reducing waste. Designers can also reclaim their fabric waste to make them. The level of skill required to stitch masks is also considerably lower than that required to stitch, for example, a lehenga. Could this new fashion category not be seen as an opportunity to generate employment? Even if only for a short while?
Ultimately, we need to examine why the idea of ‘designer masks’ upsets us. Are we against them simply because they are ‘designed’ by a fashion designer, or because we resent what they stand for? If our fashion designers — that most sensitive and responsive group whose collections often tell the stories of entire cultures — think making masks is required, then is it not possible that we are resistant, simply not ready to accept the emergence of a ‘new normal’?
Are we scared of the constant state of being cautious that they represent and require? In this case, wouldn’t we actually want face masks with a bit of pizzazz and levity to, literally, brighten the scenery around us? Or do we simply not like it that some designers have had the foresight to ‘design’ them before we actually start wanting them?
The author is a fashion commentator and Communications Director at The House of Angadi.