History is known to repeat itself. Around one hundred years ago, humankind was nearly devastated by the influenza virus. Since a similar outbreak had already devastated society in the late 19th century, some people took the opportunity to get ready before the next wave came. However, even armed with that knowledge, humanity was almost helpless to fight back against the invisible global enemy that attacked the world right after WW1, commonly known as the “Spanish flu”.
It was the deadliest pandemic of the 20th century, and it took a huge amount of lives. Now, in the wake of another global outbreak and an imminent financial crisis, which may be worse than the global recession of the ’30s, basic items can save lives–medical masks. How did the fashion industry respond to the virus spread back then and how is it responding now? By redefining medical items with style and making them available to medical industries and the masses.
How the virus stopped the fashion world
COVID-19 has had a deeply negative impact on many industries including fashion, causing brands and design houses to close their doors, cancel events, and postpone upcoming runway shows. Luxury goods companies have been affected dramatically, such as the Kering SA Group (OTC:PPRUY), which owns Balenciaga, Gucci, and other luxury fashion brands. The Group reported that it has closed dozens of stores in China as consumers aren’t leaving home and have stopped shopping, except for groceries and other basic necessities. This unprecedented pause in consumer activity has also outlined how important Chinese shoppers have become in the global luxury market over the past few years, as they grew to account for a third of the annual global high-end goods market, spending $260 billion per year.
Last year, for example, Chinese consumers accounted for 35% of the total worldwide sales of personal luxury goods, and this number is forecast to reach 46% in 2025. They are also one of the largest purchasing groups of luxury goods sold not only in China, but worldwide. According to Coresight Research, Chinese consumers were responsible for 70% of luxury purchases outside of China. The situation in Europe and other regions worldwide has worsened due to the significant drop in spending on luxury goods.
Luxury companies such as Burberry, LVMH and Coach have also been affected by the virus aftermath as the government banned Chinese from flying domestically and overseas, which is the main reason why Chinese consumers have reduced spending at luxury shops in the U.S. and Europe. Meanwhile, Prada (OTC:PRDSY) closed its stores in New York and California, with many other brands following the restrictions. So, what’s next?
A new look at an old problem
During previous pandemics, people used various methods to protect their lives from viruses. This meant the dreadful masks of middle-age plague times to bags with camphor extracts that people carried with them. However, the fashion industry used the horrific events of 1918-1919 to its advantage and created a so-called “flu mask” to protect the mouth and nose with style.
2020 has brought forth a re-evaluation of the medical mask’s role in society. Although some tried suggesting a mask wasn’t necessary, many places now require a mask to be worn outside at all times. Masks have always been a durable barrier to infections and contaminated air, and now they have transformed into fashion accessories once again.
In the wake of the fight against COVID-19, whose rapid outbreak has paralyzed the world in just a few months, covering the lower half of the face has not been popular for safety reasons only. What was once more of a statement and camouflaging element of street protesters, you will hardly surprise anyone wearing a mask today, as it has become essential. Still, it was an initial shock to see so many Westerners start wearing them that news and media outlets were surprised. This has now settled down, with the mask now an element of various outfits that even models can wear on the runways – or at least will be able to when runways and catwalks open up again.
Much like we saw a century ago, wearing a mask was more than just protective measures. For upper-class folk and style mavens, masks became just another opportunity to gain attention in society. Looking at the photos of the olden days, it’s hard to miss the great variety of styles, fabrics, and mask designs that were on offer.
By following this trend, movie stars, models, and show business celebrities have been hard at work proving that real fashion is able to adapt to any circumstance, including economic and socio-political changes, in a harmonious way. Even street styles have gotten some much needed fresh air, if you’ll excuse the pun, with this emerging fashion trend.
The recent High Fashion Week in Paris was marked by original accessories. The work of designers turned the traditional medical masks into a crucial style decision detail. After that, it took only a few days for this newest fashion accessory to become a symbol of one of the mass manifestations of the modern world. Perhaps the reason for this move to masks as high fashion is because it couches the wear in an image of mysterious drama while attracting street style photographers like a magnet. This could be more than just an assumption as, during the Balmain show, one of the guests entered with a medical mask in a total black bow with a Dries Van Noten bag!
Using the moment to survive in an unfortunate situation
While stock markets fluctuate wildly and coronavirus numbers cases rise, owners of small- and medium-sized businesses are scrambling to figure out how to deal with the disruption to their operations, with the outcome for the global economy possibly truly devastating.
New York is now known not only as a world-class art and business capital but also as a city where the virus has blossomed. Due to the extreme conditions, many local fashion designers offered their services to produce masks to help fill the shortages of protective equipment, pulling together to help fight back against the raging coronavirus outbreak.
Another great example is the trendy fashion brand Reformation, which started mask production after its factory was shut when the lockdown was initiated in L.A. Their masks do vary in appearance, but this is due to the fact that donated fabrics are sourced from various suppliers.
At the same time, Sydney-based business company TECMASK produces high-grade and high-fashion face masks and has experienced revenue growth of 8000% at the start of 2020. The business idea of creating masks with all manner of patterns and designs was initially was regarded as ridiculous by many, but the company has now bloomed as demand growth has raced to match the spread of COVID19.
Startups around the world are looking for many different ways of helping to deal with the virus. The question is how smaller fashion designers can respond to the virus, balancing the reality of closed ateliers and shops while at the same time, fulfilling online orders for their customers? Some teams see an answer to this problem by recognizing an emerging opportunity where others see a dead end. The innovators are exploring market niches and setting up remote workforces, communicating with staff online and preparing for a worsening outbreak.
Some brands have changed their direction. European handbag brand Clover recognized the opportunity to explore new markets. The company won the Red Dot innovation prize 2020 for outstanding design and luxury handbags with unique motion-sensing light and removable inner compartment making organization for women on the go much easier.
Kateryna Panchenko, the founding CEO, explained that running the company became a challenge, yet still sees a great opportunity not only to survive but even to develop despite the market crisis.
While manufacturing can not yet operate at full speed today, women have been arranged to work in smaller teams and in shifts to avoid social contact with each other, while also wearing protective masks and following all safety requirements. This caused the company to reduce its production output significantly, dropping by approximately 80 percent.
“Despite the uncertainty of markets and many lockdowns that affected our supply lines, we found the ability to save our brand. We switched direction to facial mask production, not only to help people to protect themselves from the virus but to do it in style, following an emerging global trend”, stated Panchenko.
Even as challenges continue to emerge, the brand hopes to overcome the crisis and is looking forward to a brighter future. For now, the product team sees great potential in a new market niche as facial masks and their ongoing need will not disappear any time soon – scientists are already predicting that the next wave of the virus will follow in Autumn and that even so, masks have now become a fancy addition to any wardrobe, suitable for just about any occasion. The team has already come up with fancy mask concepts, which are the perfect addition to its handbag series.
A trend that will stay in a post-virus world
While scientists around the world are trying to create a vaccine against future flare-ups of the virus, street style activists and fashion bloggers have come to grips with the threat as they do everything in their power to maintain a level of optimism in society. Summing up how the crisis has impacted business and us all, it’s hard to say when the global pandemic will end. One thing is for certain- the world is never going to be the same again. Some trends emerge and then disappear, but even a century later, fashion masks still represent something more than a simple protective measure. In the event humanity is forced to battle with more viruses in the future, masks will it indeed become a necessary and invaluable part of your wardrobe, like a tie or a scarf, cufflinks or a brooch. Fashionable face masks will likely stay trendy even when the virus has been dealt with, seeing an accessory of the past becoming a must-have accessory of the future.