If we ever leave this pandemic nightmare behind us, surely the surgical masks will linger. Their evolution, in no small part, tells the pandemic story: At the outset, when the pandemic was still ostensibly an ocean away, our health officials told us not to worry about wearing a mask — after all, the pandemic was still mostly over there. That obviously turned out not to be true, and weeks later we’d find out the reason for the misinformation. As Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, explained in June, it was because there simply weren’t enough masks for hospital workers.
This unleashed an era of mask-panic, and anywhere you went, whether it was your local drug store, CVS or even on Amazon, surgical masks were sold out. People began making DIY at-home masks from ripped T-shirts, table cloths and their own underwear (yes, true story). Finally, after weeks of uncertainty, the pandemic finally had its first formidable fashion accessory: In more ways than one, both symbolically and physically, the mask became a sort of icon of pandemic culture.
Then came the Guccification.
One might have thought that in this new world, where most social interaction is digital and nightlife all but dead, the need to show off luxury designer labels would disappear. But that’s naive: There’s always the urge, even near death, to flaunt something Italian made.
Interestingly, according to a Bloomberg report from May, at the height of the crisis, many fashion houses “repurposed some production facilities to make personal protective equipment for donation to medical workers on the front lines.” But aside from this laudable effort (PR stunt or no), the major luxury brands — Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Gucci, Prada, Ralph Lauren and the rest — had largely stayed out of the luxury mask business. In part, this was presumably because they didn’t want to appear to be profiting off of a pandemic that has killed nearly a million people, globally. Even extreme luxury brands like Bijan (known for their exorbitantly priced goods — the price of a basic Bijan suit starts at about $10,000) offer Bijan fashioned face shields at just $40 a pop, with the promise that they’ll donate one for every shield purchased.
Things, however, are about to change, at least in part because the global face mask market is set to reach $2.45 billion by 2021, according to Globe Newswire. Last week, Burberry launched a collection of face coverings “in the first foray into mask fashion from a major designer clothing brand,” reports The Guardian. “The Burberry face mask costs £90 [$118], is produced using excess fabric and is available in the brand’s signature beige check, as well as in pale blue.”
What this really means is that until now any purported Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Burberry face masks you’ve seen or heard of have actually been counterfeit, at least according to sales representatives from each brand. “I haven’t seen anything in the current catalogue,” a Gucci sales representative tells me. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not coming down the pipeline.” A sales representative from Louis Vuitton tells me that they, too, “don’t have any face masks for sale at the moment.” “We don’t have any that we’re producing on our website or being sold by any authorized distributors,” they confirm.
Still, there has been a luxury mask industry — it’s just mostly being dictated by some smaller luxury brands. Off-White, for example, is offering cloth face masks for $105 each. Supreme surgical masks sell on StockX for nearly $300. And there is, of course, the couture category of face masks. “Sustainable label Collina Strada is turning deadstock material from past collections into beautiful, maximalist masks,” reports Forbes. “They’re currently being sold for $100 each.”
Don’t be surprised, then, when the heritage luxury brands follow in the footsteps of Burberry and make their inevitable foray into the luxury mask industry. And although the wealth gap in this country is ever-increasing, and although more than 30 million people continue to claim unemployment, it probably won’t just be the uber-rich buying them. That’s because, odd as it sounds, the wealthy don’t drive the majority of luxury spending. “As an example of this behavior, researchers recently examined Google search trends across the U.S. and found that people in states with relatively high income inequality were more likely to search for luxury brands than those in other states,” Forbes reported in 2015.
To that end, in 2016, Business of Fashion reported that although things may be changing, historically, the majority of the luxury brand industry is really driven by the middle and aspirational classes. “Ultra-high-net-worth individuals are capturing nearly a quarter of all luxury spending,” Mykolas Rambus, chief executive of Wealth-X, told the industry publication. “You have a tremendously concentrated market at the high end of these consumers.” Which means the other three-quarters of luxury spending is attributed to those of us not in the top one percent. “A 2014 Exane BNP Paribas [investment company] report titled ‘Ten Concepts to Luxury Foresight’ forecasts a ‘more cautious expectation’ of UHNWIs’ [ultra-high-net-worth individuals] contributions to the market and predicts: ‘The future of luxury growth is bound to be an aspirational and middle-class affair,’” per the same Business of Fashion report.
All of which is to say, as the country falls deeper into despair, the desire to do so fashionably is likely going to increase.