On a Saturday night in April, Trevor George saw a photo, taken in the early days of the pandemic that showed a scene he figured could absolutely not persist. “Every single person had a blue three-ply disposable mask on,” says George. The image astounded him—and gave him an idea. “My wife and I looked at each other and we said, ‘There’s no way that’s going to happen in America. We knew that [Americans] were going to wear masks, but we didn’t think they were all gonna wear the exact same thing because that’s who we are. We’re very individualistic. We like to show our personality.” So he called a manufacturer that night who said they could make masks; later that week, George launched MaskClub with a sprawling inventory.
People bought Batman masks and Hello Kitty masks and tie-dye masks and masks made in collaboration with furniture textile maker Scalamandré. But most of all they bought masks with the American flag on them. They bought so many that George’s manufacturer was running three eight-hour shifts, back-to-back-to-back, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even that wasn’t enough—people bought so many that MaskClub stopped taking orders, in order to catch up with demand.
In just a couple of months, the face mask has undergone decades worth of change—the same sort of transformation that saw the T-shirt go from part of the Navy uniform to widespread civilian adoption—over the span of just a few months. First, experts told us we didn’t need them. Then the CDC recommended everyone wear one. And now they’ve reached a third, more beguiling stage: our masks represent our identities, political, stylistic, or otherwise. The face mask’s transformation from medical essential to style accessory is, like George’s, a deeply American story: one about our self-conceived rugged individualism, and about the entrepreneurial makers who exist to grind any situation, no matter how negative, into a positive.
“While the rest of the economy charts a kamikaze’s downward path, the market for masks has boomed. Since March, masks from streetwear brands that have been satisfying demand in Asia for years suddenly spiked on the secondary market. Lyst reported that the most-searched-for item of 2020 so far was an Off-White mask. And everyone from J.Crew and Old Navy to conceptual high-fashion designers like Collina Strada started making their own versions of the covering. The question around face masks morphed quickly from: Should I have one, and which will best protect me? to Which one best will best reflect ME?
Today, style-shy guys can get a face mask made in business-casual blue stripes, foodies might like one with the phrase “Insert Pizza Here,” javaheads may be delighted by coffee-themed versions, and Strada’s bowtied models will be the only ones worthy of fashion week when it resumes in a galaxy far, far away. Stylish takes on the face masks started coming my way in droves throughout April, as people texted and messaged me versions with Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bear due to my well-documented obsession with the mascot. “At first, [masks] were a safety thing, but I was thinking about a way to stand out because you started to see so many all-white medical masks,” says Ezra Wine, who is selling Polo Bear masks made out of a massive cache of Polo brand bed sheets he originally bought to turn into hats and shirts.