The New Status Accessory Is Nonmedical Masks

Want further proof that we’re currently living in the Upside Down?

There are waiting lists for designer nonmedical face masks. Yes, the newly essential item for grocery shopping, mall walking, and standing in line at the bank has become a creative canvas—and red-hot seller—for fashion designers and big brands. And its ascension as a must-have item (literally) offers an opportunity for jewelers both in the immediate and far-flung future. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

To be clear, we’re talking about nonmedical masks, not the N95 masks and other respirator-type masks reserved for frontline medical workers in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though packs of standard nonmedical face masks sold by CVS, Walgreens, and others have been sold out for months all over the United States, a by-product of early hoarding, effective and affordable hand-sewn masks abound on Etsy.

But some style-loving consumers have seen an alluring fashion opportunity in the CDC’s recommendation that we wear face masks in public spaces (popular influencers on TikTok and Instagram have advanced this idea by posting selfies wearing chic-looking masks). And why not? If fashion is your happy place, it makes sense that you’d extend that to an item that covers half your face.

Off White mask
A logo Off-White mask (photo courtesy of Off-White)

Luxury streetwear brand Off-White debuted simple logo face masks last year, the most memorable of which featured a large white X on black fabric. Once the pandemic hit, the brand sold out of them quickly, and there’s currently a waiting list for all Off-White masks—which are considered by many to be the white whale of designer face masks, made even more desirable because they’re nearly impossible to get.

On the more affordable end of trendy fashion: Millennial-beloved brand Madewell debuted cotton face masks with elastic ear loops, sold in packs of three, a couple of weeks back that sold out in hours. The retailer restocked masks Friday morning, announcing it on Instagram, and already every style is backordered. Madewell donated 75,000 medical-grade masks to a hospital in New York City in April.

Niche fashion brands are also offering face masks that, according to their Instagram feeds, are selling briskly; energetic notices along the lines of “masks are back in stock!” pepper their feeds. Los Angeles brand Sanctuary sells five-packs of chic, patterned masks for $28, and Maison Modulare sells a $60 mask with a French lace front.

Pearl mask Siriano
A pearled masked by Christian Siriano (image via @csiriano)

Designer Christian Siriano, who famously tweeted at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo offering to turn his atelier into a mask-making operation (which he did), has made medical masks for health professionals and nonmedical masks for purchase. He’s been delighting his fans on Instagram with photos of elaborate face masks elegantly swathed in pearls and crystals that affect bejeweled handbags for the visage, and is taking orders for some of them online. Thursday, Siriano reposted a photo of a pearl mask (see photo above) with a note: “This was just something fun to inspire us, and the entire Siriano team can’t wait to get back to work creating things like this.”

With no end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight in the United States, Siriano and other designers may discover that branded masks are the new branded perfume—the reliable, robustly marked-up best seller that makes experimenting with more whimsical fashion, tailored to ultra-affluent clients, possible.

Looking at Siriano’s sparkling, metals-and-gemstone masks, it’s easy to see how jewelry can play a role in this moment.

Jewelry designers, gem dealers, and others are in the unique position to produce real-deal luxury masks. It’s not a simple proposition: The CDC recommends that nonmedical masks be cotton and breathable—and the most effective ones have removable filters.

But imagine an air-thin mesh overlay embroidered (on the sides) with semiprecious beads—or vintage costume jewelry components? We’ll leave the innovations to the innovators. But the possibilities do seem endless.

Top: Christian Siriano metal petal mask (image via @csiriano)

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JCK Magazine Editor