By Darlene Donloe
LOS ANGELES — The coronavirus has unexpectedly prompted a new fashion craze that has taken over the streets of the city.
The new must-have item in everyone’s wardrobe is a face mask and that could be here to stay for awhile.
A mandated precaution, the once-standard, disposable light blue surgical mask face coverings have given way to colorful, stylish masks touting images of everything from what someone is thinking, to their brand, personality, political affiliation, college, favorite sports team, beliefs, humor, cartoon characters or political stance.
Synthia Saint James is a world-renowned multicultural visual artist and award-winning author and illustrator of 17 children’s books, a cookbook, and a play. She’s also a keynote speaker and educator who is best known for the original cover art of the hardcover edition of Terry McMillan’s book “Waiting to Exhale” and for designing the first Kwanzaa stamp for the United States Postal Service in 1997.
She is also one of many entrepreneurs who have started making masks. Hers are 100% polyester, reusable, and washable non-surgical masks without filters that are based on her colorful paintings.
“I’m offering a huge selection of multi-cultural paintings and themes including seascapes, marketplaces, … butterflies, and spiritual deities to hopefully fulfill most everyone’s taste in art,” Saint James said.
A Los Angeles resident, Saint James has more than 80 designs that sell for $16. She said men and women and young adults from every walk of life, ethnic background and age group are buying her masks.
When asked why she started making masks, Saint James said, “My hope was and is to brighten our days and uplift our spirits through the vivid colors and positive energies of my paintings that are reproduced on my face masks.”
“If you gotta wear a mask, look good while wearing it,” said Debra Hubbard, the Los Angeles-based founder and CEO of the Black Don’t Crack brand that features men and women’s apparel and once appeared in Oprah’s O Magazine.
Hubbard, who has been in business since 2014, has a Black Don’t Crack kiosk in the Westfield Culver City Mall. Currently, she’s unable to hawk her wares there because the mall is closed. Making masks, she said, is now her new income.
She started making masks on April 15, promoted them on April 16 and by April 17 was inundated with orders. Her clientele includes celebrities like Jaleel White, who sported one of her masks on social media.
Today, Hubbard and her production team make about 300 masks a day and have given them away to post office workers at the airport. Her masks, which are $10, are made out of rayon and polyester and are breathable and stretchy. They come in black and camouflage.
“My masks are a definite fashion accessory,” said Hubbard, a single mother of three who has written a book called “Unbreakable, Redefining Resilience.” “They are uniting us. It’s a conversation piece.
“I think we’re winning really big because they are stylish. People all over the country are wearing my masks. I don’t have to promote. They self promote. I don’t have to worry about branding because everyone knows the phrase.”
A simple online search for mask options produces massive results. There are designer facemasks and celebrity fashion masks. On a recent program, Etsy CEO Josh Silverman said there are now about 20,000 of its shops selling masks. He said there was an “overwhelming demand” for masks after the Center for Disease Control recommended Americans wear a cloth face covering.
The music industry is no stranger to masks as some rappers like Travis Scott, 2 Chainz, and Young Thug have used them as their signature look. Grammy-winning singer Billie Eilish wore a mask made by Gucci to the 2020 Grammy Awards. Louis Vuitton, Prada and Brooks Brothers announced they are also making masks.
The reason some designers are customizing and personalizing masks is to cut the discomfort some feel when wearing a face covering in public. With excessive use, wearing a face mask can lead to dry, irritated skin.
“Everyone wants to feel unique,” Hubbard said.
Masks became standard issue face wear in Los Angeles on April 1 after Mayor Eric Garcetti donned a black cloth mask during his daily briefing and told Angelenos to get used to wearing a mask in public as part of the city’s new normal.
He advised residents to wear something over their faces when going out in public to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which had started its cruel march through the city.
“I know it will look surreal,” Garcetti said during the press conference. “We’re going to have to get used to seeing each other like this. This will be the look. Let me lead as mayor and let people know that this is the way we will be seeing each other. And wearing these on the streets is something that will help us all to control that spread.”
Jeannine Jones and her mother, Anise, both of whom are travel planners, call themselves The Jones Girls. Jeannine, who works in human resources, and her mother, a seamstress, began making masks after her brother, who is a plumber, said he needed one.
“We made him one and then I made one for myself and posted a picture of me wearing it on Facebook,” Jeannine Jones said. “The next thing I knew, we had 35 orders and this was before masks were mandated. It was just common sense to start making them. We keep getting orders and requests.”
The Jones Girls’ business has grown due to word of mouth and because of the popularity of Facebook. Their masks, which are washable, come in several colors and styles, sell for $10, and are 100% cotton with a pocket at the top for a filter.
“Our masks are special,” said Anise Jones, who makes about 20 masks a day. “We make them so that they are more adjustable for different face sizes. Masks have become a fashion accessory. It has become a trend.”
Stylish masks have become so popular that apparel manufacturers like Los Angeles Apparel, are cranking out facial coverings at a rapid pace.
“People keep asking if masks work,” said Dov Charney of American Apparel, located in South Los Angeles. “I’m just a garment guy, but I’m speculating they do. We have 1,000 people making about 100,000 masks a day and it’s growing.
“A good quality mask is the most important garment you’re going to wear right now. It needs to be secure, washable, and comfortable.”
Charney, 51, didn’t initially start making masks for consumers. He started making them for his workers who use them while they are in production.
“There was a shortage of masks for industrial workers,” Charney said. “It didn’t really have anything to do with the coronavirus. We needed them because our workers use them during the production process. It was simply because we needed masks.”
Charney said the supply chain of masks coming out of China was disrupted by COVID-19.
“We were going to make masks for ourselves and then we told people the masks may be good and the wanted one,” said Charney, who gives away masks to the homeless and to those who are financially challenged. “We started selling them. We did some research and realized it may prevent transmission. We decided to give it a chance. We kept insisting on that narrative until it became the national narrative.”