SAFETY AND STYLE
California’s Face Mask Biz Becomes More Sophisticated
A generation of California manufacturers and designers completed a crash course on making nonmedical face masks in the past two months, and they are currently striving to go beyond the basics.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, government initiatives such as L.A. Protects put out a call to brands and designers to make nonmedical face masks to protect people against the spread of the disease. Designers from different industries took a dive into what was basically a new category for them. From bedding companies such as Allied Feather & Down to contemporary-apparel brands such as Z Supply, creatives and manufacturers within an array of categories have entered the mask-making business.
They’re placing their own unique design touches on face coverings. They’re also charting a future where the wider public will have a long-term demand for masks, said Mehdi Raad, founder and creative director of the menswear brand Maceoo, which was founded in San Diego and sold styles to Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. Raad took his brand’s shirting fabric and made it into masks. “When we started making masks, people just bought them to support the cause,” he said. “Eventually, demand grew. Now, there are multiple places where you cannot go if you don’t have a face covering.”
Fashion veteran Maria “Mo” Groezinger of LA Apparel Services recently started a face-covering company named Mask Era Inc. with her son Dylan Groezinger and his friend Victoria Rojano. Maria Groezinger said that this new category is growing up and getting more sophisticated.
The Mask Era crew wanted to make better-designed masks that didn’t slip off or bunch up. Groezinger, her son and his friend make form-fitting masks that hug the cheeks. There is also elastic under the chin area and behind the ears to support the mask. To ensure that it stays on, the mask also features wire on the nose area that can be pressed to hold the mask in place. There are also panels to insert filters. Prints and bright colors give the face coverings added personality. The group’s masks come in three sizes, Maria Groezinger said.
“It’not a one-size-fits-all category,” she said. “We don’t do that in T-shirts and clothing, so why do that in masks?”
Katie May Neu co-founded the Katie May bridalwear label that has sold stylish bridal gowns, bridesmaid designs and special-occasion styles to retailers such as Nordstrom and Revolve.
When the bridal and special-occasion business dried up, she started making the face coverings out of the soft, high-end fabrics used in wedding dresses. It made for a better mask, she said.
“Comfort matters greatly with the effectiveness of a mask. If a mask is difficult to breathe out of, it is typically made of fabrics that cause irritation to the skin or is ill-fitting,” she said. “That will cause the wearer to not cover their nose and mouth. Or they will be constantly adjusting their masks with contaminated fingers, which is a major no-no.”
Neu said that she is focused on designing masks that offer functions such as pockets where filters can be inserted. Her brand makes lace masks such as its Provacateur mask, which has an exotic, luxe look. It retails for $45. The brand also makes a Disco Ball mask that uses sequins. It retails for $25. There are also the Protected AF masks, which are made out of crepe and come in four colors including dove and a cherry red. It retails for $19.
On May 11, Katie May announced that the business had expanded its offerings to make masks in toddler and children’s sizes featuring adjustable straps. Neu said that manufacturing masks saved her business.
“It allowed me to pay the rent and rehire a majority of the staff,” she said. “But the margins are different. The business relies on a lot more volume.”
Like all other markets, there is a possibility for the nascent nonmedical face-mask market to become flooded with product. But the market is just beginning to take shape, and designers and companies are brainstorming ideas on making protective clothing with a stylish edge, said Rebecca Pride, a sales representative for the Los Angeles–based Lunachix. The company has been making masks for public-transportation groups such as Los Angeles County’s Metro system and staff for educational groups such as Chaffey College.
“Everyone is still trying to figure out what will be required. Are we going to be a society where everyone will need to wear masks and gloves?” Pride said.
Designers are also wondering if the public will soon request clothing that protects more areas of the body, she said. Will fashion brands be making full body coverings made out of microbial fabrics? Will there be demand for turtleneck tops that can be turned up to cover the nose and mouth?
Masks also can serve as opportunities to spread the word about brands. The Los Angeles–headquartered nonprofit Social Good Group was looking for an advantageous time to introduce itself and its efforts to raise awareness and funds for causes such as homelessness and the environment. One of the group’s partners, Taylor McKinnon, founder of the Los Angeles fashion brand Bowie & Co., had the means to produce masks.
“It was what was needed right now,” said Aaron Haxton, Social Good Group’s founder. The nonprofit decided to introduce itself with a black mask made out of an antimicrobial bamboo fabric that included the group’s red logo. Social Good Group was able to donate more than 5,000 masks, and its direct-to-consumer site, socialgoodgroup.org, was quickly sold out of product, Haxton said.
Contributing to the greater good is an important component within many manufacturers’ business models in a COVID-19 world. For Raad, this meant donating Maceoo’s masks to hospitals and selling masks to Las Vegas casinos such as MGM Hotels. While he said selling masks does not match sales of the brand’s shirts, he thought that this was an opportunity to build goodwill and serve the public.
“We barely break even on the manufacturing of masks. But this is not the right time to make money,” he said. “It is the right time to support community.”