Let’s take you back to 2014, Beijing. Mercedes Benz Fashion Week was happening as usual but with a twist. The models adorned face masks and designer Yin Peng went a step further and coordinated their face masks with his sportswear collection. Seeing surgical face masks in Asia has become a phenomenon due to air pollution and contagious diseases that have broken out in the region; e.g. Bird Flu and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). But surgical masks were designed to help with issues like blood splatter, not pollution.
Hence the big move to respiratory mask. According to the New York Times, these are made with valves and layers in order to filter out majority of the air’s particles, as well as allow for unhindered breathing; making them more efficient.
Skip forward to December 2015, Beijing issued an air pollution red alert due to the severely high smog levels. According to the Times US, This is the second time they’ve had to issue such a warning. The clip below gives just a sample of how uncomfortable and hazardous it is to live in such conditions.
From that short clip, it’s easy to understand why the air mask market is huge in China. According to Reuters, China’s biggest e-commerce website, Taobao, made $140 million dollars in 2013 from anti-smog mask products. They also experienced a surge of 181% new shoppers from 2012 looking for masks. You may be quick to dismiss this apparel as something reserved for China and other rapidly developing economies, but the truth of the matter is that global air quality has deteriorated. Data from the Global Burden of Disease project estimates that annually, over 5.5 million people worldwide are dying prematurely because of air pollution. And according to the Financial Times, this is “costing the global economy $5.1tn annually”.
It’s clear the need for respiratory masks is quite valid; sadly. And the fashion industry has acknowledged this and decided to do what it does best. Taking something that we need and making it fashionably acceptable as well as functional (cough, google glasses anyone). Designers want to create brands that live up to the task but don’t compromise on how it looks and feels; making it practical for multiple and longer use. Here are just some of the designers standing out in the couture respiratory mask game:
The idea to create this mask came when the founders, Wendover Brown and her son, Marc, went for Burning Man in 2011 that usually happens in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA. They realised people needed highly functioning masks to keep desert sand away from their faces. But they also needed to be fashionably cool, seeing as it’s a festival atmosphere. They created the Vogmask which comes equipped with an active carbon layer to reduce odours, an exhale valve and an N99 filter. (N99 indicates the filter’s efficiency level. The Higher the number, the more particles the respirator will filter out.) They’ve since experienced major success in image-conscious China. They’ve even been featured at Hong Kong and Paris Fashion Weeks; proving they play nice with fashionistas.
The first thing you’ll notice about this company is the huge selection of designs that cater to prints, bold colour and even the minimalistic individual. Beneath that beauty is a Bio-active™ layer that keeps out dust, allergy-agents and pollutants by immobilizing dangerous compounds with enzymes and harmless microorganisms, which are activated each time you breathe. U-Mask not only prides itself for bringing together fashion designers, biotechnology scientists and pollution masks manufacturers from the USA, Italy and Switzerland, but also in achieving the highest standard of protection. That’s basically better than a N99 or N95 face mask.
This protective Sports Mask was created to help outdoor enthusiasts cope with harsh environmental conditions and the ever worsening air quality we are experiencing today. Aura is modular, which means that it gives the wearer the ability to switch out features such as the AIR_COOL micro ventilator for cleaner air and assisted breathing, the AIR_ION ioniser module and the AIR_SPA aroma module to mention a few of AIRMOTION modules. Medical grade silicon is used in the sections that make contact with your face due to their snit-allergy and anti-microbial attributes. It’s also PM2.5 ready. Translation – PM2.5 refers to fine particles which pose higher risk to your respiratory system, causing respiratory problems. In general, particles smaller than 10 micrometres in diameter (PM10) is horrible for our health.
This Swedish mask company was founded in 2015 and successfully raised enough money in their Kickstarter campaign to make it a reality. Just like sunglasses serve a vital purpose, protecting your eyes from UV rays, they had the idea to make face mask functional apparel. Co-founder Alexander Hjertström explains that although aesthetics are important at Airinum, functionality is also key. In an interview with media company, Mic, he explained that each mask has, “a replaceable filter, an active carbon layer for odour, an electrostatic layer for breathability and a microfiber layer to fend off bacteria. It’s all topped off with a streamlined, adjustable outer layer for the world to see.”
Operating out of Britain, Freka face wear is ergonomically designed for breathability, comfort and fit. With its ventilation system and air-revitalization technology, it basically filters what you inhale to remove impurities before the air gets to your lungs. How the mask sits on your face was an imperative point for them because why should we have to choose between looking good and being healthy? So they’ve taken into consideration that every face is different but deserves comfort and the perfect seal and pressure distribution. So you’ll find it has a nose fit and chin movement adjuster to allow for normal, natural movement.
Last, but not least, on our list is the modern version of Respro masks that were created in 2014 by Italian designer Marcelo Burlon. The British company has been making masks since 1993, but they were mostly utilised by athletes, allergy sufferers and firefighters. So it’s obvious that those masks focused more on functionality than appearance. However, the worsening pollution shifted their interests in a more fashionable and protective direction.
So what is the future of the face mask? They’ve moved from a symbol of flu or allergy to a “multimillion-dollar industry” that has gotten the fashion industry treatment. We may not be experiencing China-levels of smog and maybe only ever wear masks to clean out a dusty store or during home renovations. But with our cities becoming increasingly polluted and the population becoming more health conscious, is this going to become a global fashion trend out of necessity? Respiratory masks makers are already working on more high-tech versions to make them more effective for the rate of air pollution.
As Hjertström phrased it in the Mic interview, “Ideally, no one should wear a mask in the future,” he added. “[But] it’s not going to disappear overnight.”