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How masks became fashion’s object of desire

Once upon a time if you wanted to get ahead you
got a hat.

Now if you want to step outside your front door you need a mask.
In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has upended the Western wardrobe and
challenged its deepest codes about freedom, comfort and self-expression.

From being a curious oddity seen only on Asian tourists, masks have
suddenly become as essential as socks — a signal of civic virtue and a
passport to many public spaces denied to the bare faced.

“When you wear one you are saying, ‘I’m not a threat’,” said French
designer Stephanie Coudert, who made her name with Paris haute couture.

“It’s a civic gesture.”

Yet when she sat down to design a mask, one thought kept coming back to her.

“It’s a muzzle. It is hard to get away from that,” Coudert told AFP.

Fashion’s Mr Zeitgeist, Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh had no such
reservations, rushing out a simple black mask emblazoned with the arrow logo
of his own Off-White label for 92 dollars (87 euros) a pop.

It immediately sold out and has since become the most coveted style
accessory in the world, according to trends monitor the Lyst Index, with some
now selling secondhand for four and five times that.

By contrast, Coudert is selling her couture masks for eight euros.

“It a social choice for me,” she said. “I think we are all asking ourselves
how we can be useful.”

Not surprisingly, she is working flat out to keep up with demand. Indeed
Lyst said internet searches for masks have gone up five times since the
beginning of the year.

Early adopters

Even before the virus raised its ugly head, masks were coming in from the
fashion cold.

American designer Rick Owens was ahead of the curve, masking many of the
models in his Paris spring summer collection two years ago and giving out
masks to everyone at the show.

Back then Owens had pollution and climate change in mind. Yet he was
reluctant to revive the idea even as the virus casts its shadow on the last
Paris fashion week in March.

“I would hate to capitalise on it,” he said. “I’m sure people will and it
will be sensational on Instagram.”

Owens was not alone in seeing a fashion future for masks. Rising French
designer Marine Serre was an early adopter and they have also featured in
recent Gucci, Vetements and Japanese designer Takahiro Niyashita’s The Soloist
shows.

But many of the big houses remain cautious and deeply ambivalent about
whether masks will be part of our fashion future.

Style historian Olivier Saillard warned masks were “an accessory we all
want to be quickly rid of”.

‘Rather vulgar’

It could be seen as “rather vulgar to make money from putting a logo on a
mask,” he told AFP.

While Dior, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga have been making free masks for
French medical staff and care workers, there is a reticence about going any
further.

Chloe, a bag and accessory designer for a fabled French house, told AFP
from the window of her Paris apartment that she had been asked to toy with
some ideas around masks.

“It’s tricky,” she said. “But we could be wearing them for many months or
even years, so why not make them into a fetish object. It is what we humans
do.”

Coudert said that if we had to live with them, it was best to make masks
that were clever, comfortable and calming.

AIDS analogy

“I dropped the idea of making ones with a seam down the middle because you
can look like a warrior in them. We don’t need to make people any more nervous
now,” said the couturier.

For the anthropologist Frederic Keck, masks have long been regarded in the
West as “archaic and oppressive”, a prejudice that will be hard to shake.

Indeed, covering the face is technically illegal in France under a
controversial “burqa ban” aimed at Islamic face coverings.

In a think piece in the French daily Le Monde, Keck compared masks and the
constraints COVID-19 has imposed on social interaction to the “loss of
innocence that AIDS brought to love making” in the 1980s.

Despite all the downsides, historian Saillard sees one positive to be drawn
from having to wear masks.

“In a era which is all about ego… a little bit of self-effacement is
maybe not all bad,” he said.(AFP)

Photo: Francois Guillot / AFP

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