The year 2020 started on a positive front, but in just a few weeks, the novel coronavirus has overturned the world of fashion. With nationwide lockdown put in place, the entire supply chains have been disrupted and have come to a halt, rendering many shops to shutter forever and millions losing their jobs. In an effort to revive the industry, fashion players have jumped at the first opportunity they saw – positioning face masks on the list of essential items during this pandemic.
Ironically, what was once seen to be archaic and oppressive – and in some countries also downright illegal (France posed a controversial burqa ban), and a product usually associated with South East Asian tourists – face masks have suddenly become an all access pass to almost all public spaces and gatherings.
Interestingly, even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, many instances of face masks emerged on the international fashion runways. 2 years ago, during his Spring/Summer showcase at Paris, Rick Owens sent masked models down the ramp, teaming it up by giving them out to his audience as well. These human muzzles were also spotted in the recently concluded Fall/Winter 2020 showcases of Marine Serre, Richard Quinn, Maison Margiela, The Blonds.
Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh unveiled a minimal black mask emblazoned with the logo of his own brand – Off-White. Retailing at US $ 92 (or 87 euros) for a piece, the mask sold out as soon as it was launched and has since become one of the most in-demand style accessories of the fashion world.
Instead of influencing other brands on a level that other viral trends do, this statement has, instead, left a bitter taste. It is understandable that the industry needs to keep moving and business needs to come in, but keeping in mind the situation and sensitivity surrounding COVID-19, one has to take a step back and wonder how okay it is to capitalise on such a situation by pushing masks as a product category.
Taking the empathetic route, on the other hand, high-fashion houses and conglomerates, such as LVMH, Dior, Saint Laurent, Kering and Balenciaga, have been donating masks for the frontline workers and medical staff since March, an effort they have restrained from capitalising on. Closer to home, we saw Indian designers such as Anita Dongre, Sabyasachi and Rahul Mishra among others taking the same compassionate way forward, while other brands and designers opt for retailing the masks at subsidised rates and donating proceeds of the same towards relief efforts via various funds and charities.
Indian fashion councils – the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) and Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) – also launched a COVID-19 Support Fund (CSF) to aid small businesses and young designers during the global pandemic.
Hyderabad-based manufacturer Pokarna Fabrics has a tailoring hub named Pcube, which caters to exclusive clientele and offers elegant and customised solutions for menswear. Post COVID-19, Pratik Pokarna sought to help the city by donating cotton masks and protective gloves for the police force. This effort has now extended to all eight of its retail stores, factories, sales staff, neighbours and maintenance and security officials.
Customised for men, women and children, Pcube offers masks with and without a filter option – and more protective ones can be made on request for laboratory usage. Interestingly, its children’s masks come in three different sizes. “We only use pure 100 per cent Raymond cotton. There are vents in all our designs that can be extended to cover the nose and chin as needed,” Pratik Pokarna, Managing Director, Pokarna Fabrics and Pcube, told Apparel Resources, adding, “We noted how plastic makes it difficult for people to safely use masks, and hence, have opted to use only 60s cotton, for its fine thread count and easy breathability. Our masks are reusable and washable up to 100 times, making it easier to store and handle.”
These reusable masks are priced at Rs. 45 a piece with filter and Rs. 25 a piece without filter.
Delhi-based SRM Clothing Group started manufacturing three-layer face masks for the Government after an enquiry by the AEPC and then slowly started retailing them on Amazon upon spotting a shortage and need in the market. SRM has also received demand for the same from its clients based in India and Australia.
“We are manufacturing three-layer masks for women and men in woven fabrics with a non-woven layer in-between. For the frontline workers, we are strictly making non-woven material masks, while we have recently branched out to make masks as per school uniforms for kids,” said Prateek Gupta, CEO, SRM Clothing Group.
In SRM Clothing’s three-layer masks, the first layer is cotton voile/60s viscose for light weight easy breathability, the second layer is a non-woven tricot microdot fabric for higher filtration and safety, and the third layer is composed of 100 per cent organic cotton to make the customer feel cooler in the summer months. They also have a single layer disposable mask variety which is made out of organic cotton.
“All our masks are sprayed and finished with anti-viral, anti-bacterial finishes and are fully machine-washable. Additionally, our masks are SEK (Sanitary, Eco-friendly and Kindly) marked that certifies functional textile products. JTETC conducts certification of products to ensure their safety as well as performance,” Prateek highlighted.
The manufacturer is also planning to launch a colourful cartoon print collection for kids to make its designs more interesting after demands for orders of the same poured in from a few India-based brands.
With a range of over 100 prints and solid masks to choose from, SRM’s masks are meant for the sole purpose of helping people and the country in overcoming the shortage, keeping in mind which, the prices are subsidised at Rs. 45 for a single layer mask, Rs. 65 for a 3-layer mask, Rs. 125 for a pack of three single-layered masks, and Rs. 175 for a pack of three 3-layered masks.
“We are mainly doing bulk orders; otherwise, we are available on amazon.in. The main reason behind production of masks was to shorten the gap between the demand and supply of PPE. We started it in order to retain as much staff as we can as export businesses dwindle,” Prateek said, adding, “We have tied up with UNICEF for this initiative and 100 per cent proceeds from the sale of our masks will be given to them. We look at it as more of a CSR initiative than a promotion.”
Taking sustainability and organic fashion a notch forward, we have Salona Group – manufacturer of yarn, fabrics and garments, which is the first manufacturer in India to have received an organic certification for face masks.
The group is manufacturing masks made from organically grown cotton which is softer, hypoallergenic and long lasting, providing a sustainable and eco-friendly option as compared to regular cotton masks available in the market.
“Our initiative birthed out of an effort to keep the entire value and supply chain active – it’s also our way of paying back to our farmers. Right from the cotton that we use, to the processing to the stitching – everything is organic,” Raghav Agarwal of Salona Group told Apparel Resources, adding, “Our cotton is sourced from Gujarat and Maharashtra; we are buying organic cotton, spinning it and getting it dyed as well in our own factory.”
Salona Group is manufacturing reusable face masks for other brands as well as retailing under its own brand Newrie, via its own stores and distribution channels across the country. Optimising the utilisation of resources available, Salona Group is making use of fabric in stock to create masks and minimise wastage.
“We are doing wholesale business wherein we are providing masks without any labels and are also doing corporate orders for companies such as Asian Paints, etc., wherein we incorporate their logos on our products and give it to them for use within their internal work force, their independent retail stores, their contractors, etc.,” Raghav explained.
Anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, hypoallergenic and softer as compared to normal masks available in the market, their masks have a filter efficiency of 80 per cent which goes up to 95 per cent.
Priced at Rs. 45 for a single mask and going up to Rs. 119 for a pack of three masks, the group has come up with boat shaped masks which provide a better coverage and grip.
Since most shops have been shut, sourcing different printed fabrics and creating quirky designs during the lockdown is next to impossible. Amidst these drawbacks, designers and brands have resorted to more sustainable ways of creation – resorting to upcycling and using leftover fabric scraps and excess fabric from their active collections. Apart from ensuring a more ethical way of working, this effort also provides a continuance to a brand’s distinctive ideology – which proves to be a great way for consumers to relate with the brands they engage with.
In an effort to support employment for various skilled kaarigars and generate income opportunities for artisans, industry players are coming up with hand-made, eco-friendly reusable fabric face covers in attractive designs, colours and prints suitable for everyday use.
Co-founders of FabAlley, Tanvi Malik and Shivani Poddar believe that going forward, masks are going to become an important aspect of our everyday outfits and the best way to go about this is by providing masks that combine functionality with fashion in a preppy yet modish way.
Keeping the same in mind, FabAlley is creating masks that are in tune with the brand’s current collection, wherein all designs are a mix of self-expressionist prints and patterns along with standard black and white masks in order to cater to a wider market.
“We are manufacturing a unisex product – cotton-based three ply, washable, reusable, non-surgical masks that provide protection against particulate matter, which we are selling as bundles of 2 and 3,” said Tanvi Malik, Co-founder of FabAlley.
“We wanted to leverage the fabric we had in stock which are suitable for masks, to ensure less wastage. We did not want to buy and make more fabric since that just results in excesses. Our masks are basically made using cotton, various cotton-blends and linen keeping in mind that they need to be skin-friendly and breathable.”
Besides retailing on its own e-commerce website and selling via a few online partners such as Myntra, Nykaa, Flipkart, and Big Basket – which purchase a wholesale lot from the brand, it is also in talk with online pharmacies such as PharmEasy and 1mg.
The demand has been extremely strong with around 10,000 bundles of masks selling out across websites and platforms where they are available, in 20 days since the brand went live with the initiative.
Keeping up with market feedback, FabAlley has been quick to accommodate customer concerns. “Our first lot of masks featured elasticated ear bands which you could just loop behind your ears but the feedback that we received from our consumers was that it starts hurting the ears over prolonged usage, so we replaced those by incorporating tie style loops within the masks and started using looser elastics with a different stretch and GSM property to it,” Tanvi corroborated.
FabAlley has thematically aligned its masks in a way that there are colour-wise sets, and prints such as ikkat, stripes, chevrons, along with typical batik and block prints. The brand has also combined solids to keep the unisex aspect alive, along with a few basic blacks available in sets of 10 and 20 which have emerged as some of their best performers and are already sold out. These sets further also ensure that some aspect of B2B can be directly catered to from the brand’s website itself.
FabAlley also donated 2,000 masks to an NGO called Vyomini, a social enterprise that is working towards the safety of migrant labourers and slum clusters in Delhi-NCR during the pandemic.
In a similar light, handcrafted footwear brand Fizzy Goblet, also created health kits which included essential items such as a sanitiser, hand wash, preventive masks, Vitamin-C and Paracetamol tablets for those who need it the most, but don’t have access to it. Along with the help of Help Age India NGO, it has made these kits available to over 200 elderly people based in Delhi.
Even before the lockdown was announced, Indian fashion designer Shruti Sancheti was producing face masks amidst rising concerns of coronavirus around the world and the possible threat it posed to India at the time.
When FDCI announced its CSF Fund, Shruti thought of supporting the fashion industry by coming out with the concept of ‘7 days of fashion’ – which ideally is a pack of 7 reusable, assorted designer masks.
Priced at the steeper end – Rs. 2,000 for a pack of 7, these masks can directly be purchased via FDCI’s fund page, a link for which is generated from the label’s side once the order is confirmed.
Apart from paying salaries to her workers, this effort is more of a CSR activity on the part of the label, 100 per cent of proceeds of which go to support the CSF fund.
“We are manufacturing two-ply, three-ply masks and single layer masks made using pure cotton from our spillover, leftover, excess fabric that we already had,” said Shruti Sancheti, Founder of label Shruti Sancheti and Pinnacle by Shruti Sancheti, adding, “These masks are eco-friendly, reusable, organic, washable and everything is done in-house.”
The mask has no synthetic entities – not even elastic. “We made the mask with four strings attached that can be tied in a very comfortable manner and when one is not coming in contact with anyone, they can just put it around their neck like a neckpiece,” Shruti highlighted.
Shruti Sancheti’s masks are a natural extension of the label’s design philosophy which has always been a little restrained and more earthy. They feature fun prints, subdued stripes, plaids and florals – a mix of which can be found in their pack of seven.
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