Seattle fashion designer Luly Yang admits that she had never put even a moment’s thought into the aesthetic possibilities of the common face mask before March, when the coronavirus made masks a coveted medical necessity all over the world.

Four months later, the now-ubiquitous mask is front and center in daily life in dozens of countries, and Yang is something of an expert after transforming her high-end couture design studio into a high-rev mask-making operation.

Fashion is “self-identity and self-expression through clothing and how we choose to represent ourselves,” Yang said. “Now, the mask is another very important piece that people choose to — or choose not to — put on in the morning that says something about what they represent. Me, personally, I put it on for others. I put it on for my community. I put it on for myself and my family. I’m doing it because I’m part of a bigger community.

“To me, when I see people wearing it, it tells me that they care. … It’s a fashion statement personally for them. And it’s just the communication piece, too. It says, ‘We’re being careful.’”

For Luly Yang and Gustave Apiti, face masks provide both protection and self-expression. The Seattle fashion designers are making couture face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (Ramon Dompor and Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)

No matter how you feel about it, the humble mask is now the world’s most prominent fashion accessory. It’s also now our most in-your-face messaging device, and it is at the center of a debate that has inflamed the already fraught political divisions in our country.

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In the U.S., where virus numbers continue to rise with alarming speed, many states like Washington have mandated masks in public spaces. Last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield stressed again that if all Americans wore masks now, “we could bring this epidemic under control” in the next four to eight weeks.

Yet even though the CDC reports that three in four Americans have started wearing cloth face coverings when they leave their homes, some swear they will never adopt regular usage of the mask, and feel so strongly about it that they’re burning them in protest. Meanwhile, as the dual pandemics of coronavirus and racism take center stage this summer, many have emblazoned the slogans of the moment across their face, with messages like “Black Lives Matter” and “VOTE” embroidered, painted or Sharpie’d onto their masks. 

There’s lots more to unpack once you get past that initial discussion of the mask as political symbol. For now, as the world waits for a coronavirus vaccine, the mask is here to stay. And while its initial use was born out of necessity, it’s quickly becoming a lifeline for the fashion industry.

Designer’s dream: A blank canvas

There’s not much that’s ever truly “new” in the fashion world. Trends come and go and hemlines rise and fall, but people have worn shirts, pants, skirts and other standard garments for centuries.

The mask as an accessory, however, is something brand-new: a blank canvas. And there’s nothing more fascinating to a fashion designer. 

“I’m so excited,” Yang said. “My friends and clients, they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, you’ve been doing this for so long, what keeps you going?’ And it’s all about ‘How do we use design and innovation to elevate the human experience?’ 

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“What we’re doing right now, while we’re designing, is making things better for people in general. And this whole mask situation, this whole COVID situation, is a true test of our team’s talent and our know-how to really elevate the human experience,” Yang said. “What better way to do that than through health and through keeping people healthy?”

Fashion has a fascinating and often strange history. From $10,000 haute couture gowns on the red carpet to the grungy flannel shirt on the streets, what we wear says a lot about us. People have used fashion to make statements for almost as long as they’ve worn clothes. 

The mask is unique, however, and with the coronavirus still spreading throughout the world more than eight months after it first emerged in China, this is its fashion moment.

“I was trying to think of other examples that were this rapidly adopted and I couldn’t come up with anything, because I think we are really living in an unprecedented time,” said Clara Berg, the Museum of History & Industry’s (MOHAI) clothing and textile specialist. “Six months ago there was not hardly anyone wearing masks and suddenly it’s become standard.

“Now it’s a fashion essential.”

There have been lots of those over the centuries, and many of those trends have been used to carry meaning. The modern T-shirt is a ready-made billboard for political statements. Bluejeans were a clarion call against communism in Russia in the 1970s and ‘80s. Miniskirts were an early salvo in the sexual revolution. There have been Brownshirts and white pantsuits and red MAGA ball caps. 

And there have been all kinds of compulsory clothing regulations — mostly religious — through the ages as well, from women covering their hair and visible skin with headwear, gloves and layers, including the corset and pantyhose. For centuries in Western civilization, for instance, you wouldn’t catch a man without a hat — until they all but disappeared from standard, everyday use in the 1950s and ‘60s.

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“There was this understanding that the outfit was this complete ensemble and the hat was part of it — and it was sort of an essential part of it,” Berg said. “There was a period in the 18th century when men were all wearing powdered wigs and they actually wouldn’t put the hat on their head because it would mess up the wig. But they would carry the hat around with them everywhere because this was like part of the outfit.

“It wouldn’t even occur to them to not have a hat as part of the ensemble.”

But nothing has been quite so … fashion-forward … as the mask.

“It’s actually on your face and it’s very prominent,” Yang said. “Think of it: What other things do we purchase [for the face] as a consumer? We have makeup for women. And then we have glasses. We have facial jewelry that people choose to do piercings with. And now we have masks.

“This is the most expressive part of themselves that they choose to show the world when they leave the house. And the mask is now taking center stage.”

“Level up” these masks

Yang isn’t the only designer who sees multiple opportunities in masks as we navigate life in 2020: Scores of Seattle businesses are now making and selling them. Everyone from retail giant Nordstrom to individual makers on Etsy are in the mask game, putting thousands of people to work in Western Washington, across the U.S. and in overseas factories.

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It’s also something of a democratic movement with some mask-makers taking the opportunity to uplift refugees and other struggling communities through new employment opportunities and charitable giving. Many are also practicing sustainability principles while making a product that can be easily assembled from reclaimed materials.

From $1 to $50 and more, you can already pick from multiple design styles that include thousands of fabric, logo and screen-printed choices. 

And the industry is flourishing because, of course, “You can’t just buy one cloth mask,” said Jeff Shulman, a professor of marketing in the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. “Because you then need to clean it or you lose it or you put it in your pocket and you forget about it.” 

Some people also, inevitably, end up buying different masks for different purposes, or even to match different outfits.

Gustave Apiti, a Seattle fashion designer who has started a high-couture line of masks, wears one of his designs, Monday, July 20, 2020 in Seattle. He is the owner of Seattle’s Gustavo Apiti Couture. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Gustave Apiti, a Seattle fashion designer who has started a high-couture line of masks, wears one of his designs, Monday, July 20, 2020 in Seattle. He is the owner of Seattle’s Gustavo Apiti Couture. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

That’s where Gustave Apiti comes in. Born and raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Seattle-based designer has taken the everyday surgical mask and elevated it to something you might see on the fashion runway or a red carpet.

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“I am happy to be one of those who brings something new, some new designs in masks,” Apiti said. “I can see my masks are kind of unique and I’m making something that’s noticeable. So it’s something really I can say I’m proud of.”

Apiti’s mask journey began early in the pandemic in April, when he purchased 100 medical masks through his suppliers to give to health care workers in town. A short while later he caught a video on Ciara’s Instagram account of nurses and doctors wearing masks while lip-syncing the Seattle-based singer’s “Level Up.” It gave him an idea. 

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“They were singing ‘level up, level up,’ and when I saw that video I was inspired,” Apiti said. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow, we can level up these masks,’ because me, personally, I like to dress up nice. I like bright colors. I like to look good. I was like, ‘Oh, you know what, I need to do something that’s going to set me apart from people.’ I knew [this pandemic] would take some time, there will be time. And people will be needing to go to, let’s say, a red carpet event. Or a wedding.”

Apiti uses bold primary colors and sleek material on his masks, splashing his trademark ‘G’ along the cheek of some designs. Another mask is covered with sequins and adorned with a splash of flowers that turn it into something like a 3D sculpture.

One of the masks made by Seattle designer Gustave Apiti, shot Monday, July 20, 2020 in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
One of the masks made by Seattle designer Gustave Apiti, shot Monday, July 20, 2020 in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
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The work caught the eye of MOHAI’s Berg, who called it “over the top but in a fun way.” She’s been collecting pieces she loves for herself and the museum. She hopes to curate a mask exhibit after the pandemic that would include both masks from designers and those donated by residents who have significant stories to tell. 

“Hopefully they wash them before they donate them,” Berg joked.

She has purchased a handful from designers Sonia Wooten-Gill for FayeWoo Signature Collection and Ashaunti Martin-Smith for Ashaunti Monique Customs. Berg felt the pieces were important because they capture the confluence of issues that will define 2020 in the history books: the pandemic and the protests against police violence. Some are adorned with “I Can’t Breathe” and “BLM” while others commemorate Juneteenth.

“There are lots that are on the radar,” Berg said.

For her own collection of masks, Berg has been enjoying the pursuit. Along with Apiti’s work, she’s bought masks she loves from local designers like Katy Flynn’s KFLY line and Erika Dalya Massaquoi’s The Oula Company. She also picked up a mask from Yang, whose designs are often out of reach for the average consumer.

“Most of her stuff is custom,” Berg said. “We had a fabulous dress from her in the ‘Seattle Style’ exhibit. And the masks are a fun opportunity to buy something from a maker that maybe you couldn’t usually afford their work. And so I’ve never owned a Luly Yang gown, but now I can own a Luly mask and it’s beautifully made.”

A trend that will continue

With more than 320 million people in the U.S. alone and no end in sight to the pandemic, there could be billions of masks sold this year with demand ratcheting up with the infection rate.

There hasn’t been an opportunity to do a lot of scholarship on mask use because it’s so new. But Shulman says adoption is following expected trends outlined in something he called the “innovation diffusion model.” This model shows that different groups of people need different levels of motivation to adopt a new fashion (and that a predictable portion of the population will never adopt the new trend, even for their own health or the health of others). It starts with fashion innovators or trendsetters.

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Fashion designer Gustave Apiti of Gustavo Apiti Couture has started a high-fashion line of masks amid the coronavirus pandemic. He includes in each one the same label he sews into his suits. Monday. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Fashion designer Gustave Apiti of Gustavo Apiti Couture has started a high-fashion line of masks amid the coronavirus pandemic. He includes in each one the same label he sews into his suits. Monday. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

“These are people who seek out ways to be different to show that they’re on the cutting edge,” Shulman said. “And so we saw people wearing masks early on, even before they were told that they could be helpful, even before they were told that they should be wearing them.”

These innovators in turn inspire early adopters who are willing to try something they’ve seen others wearing. It’s the next group of consumers — a late-adopting majority — that’s a little more difficult to convince. 

“They need more assurances, both that it works and that it’s kind of acceptable and cool,” Shulman said. “So that’s actually the hardest jump to make. And so when we see governments mandating it, then you start to see that jump become easier for masks to be adopted, because it’s not just your own research or what you see others doing, but now you have to wear them.”

Once this group begins to adopt masks, the cycle starts again.

“So you’re going to see people wanting to make bolder and bolder fashion statements with their masks,” Shulman said. “You’re going to see people want to try out the newest technology, whether it’s premium filtration or other features to help them stay safe. So rather than just the cloth masks or just the standard medical-looking masks, you’ll see someone who wants some cool technology.”

Designers like Yang hope to meet that demand.

It’s important “that we offer enough solutions that make people comfortable wearing them, not only physically, but individually,” Yang said.

So regardless of whether it’s masks in neutral colors, vibrant patterns or just something that helps the wearer express themselves, “we create different lines of our masks to satisfy many different personalities,” she said.