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Who knew spring's hottest fashion accessory would be the non-medical face mask?
Andréanne Dandeneau, the designer and owner of the Winnipeg-based French-Métis fashion label Anne Mulaire, started getting requests for masks back in March, when the first cases of COVID-19 started popping up in this province.
"I thought, 'Huh, I wonder if we should start making masks,' but then, at first, it was like, no there's no regulation with that, so I just put it on the side," she says.
However, as soon as the Canadian government updated its recommendations around wearing cloth masks to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, "my Instagram started blowing up," she says. Dandeneau says Anne Mulaire sold 1,000 masks in three days. Since the beginning of April, that number has reached 4,500 and, through its donation program, her company has been able to supply masks to a variety of organizations and individuals in need.
Lennard Taylor, the creative director and president of the eponymous Winnipeg boutique fashion house, had a similar experience. "Everything that was coming out was saying, 'Cloth masks don't work, don't wear them,' and I just thought, 'You know, there's got to be some benefit, even if it's a five per cent benefit.' So I made a few and put them online and saw the reaction. My phone was inundated with orders."
Clearly, there's an appetite not just for masks, but fashionable ones. And why not? As Taylor says, "If we're going to be wearing these, we might as well wear them in funky colours and prints."
"For me, clothing tells the story of who you are, and it's about saying hello without even saying hello." – fashion designer Lennard Taylor.
Taylor has been crafting masks from his shirting fabric; Dandeneau has been using fabric from her just-launched Jardin collection. "I have skirts in that print, I have pants, I have suits. I thought, 'This is great, now we can start playing with the styles,' " she says.
She's been reaching for bamboo over cotton as she finds it's more breathable and less hard on the skin.
Taylor hopes masks become a social norm in North America. Earlier in his career, he spent some time working in China, where wearing masks is de rigueur. "It's just a different way of thinking: if you're feeling sick, wear a mask," he says. "It's polite. It's like saying 'thank you' if you're given something."
Dandeneau also believes masks will become more commonplace in North America, especially as restrictions are slowly lifted but social-distancing measures remain in place.
"When we start doing gatherings, we'll have to wear some sort of a mask — especially if you are sick or have been sick," she says. "Imagine wearing a beautiful outfit, or a gown, and you have to wear a mask. Are you going to think, 'Maybe I should look for a really pretty one to go with my gown?' Or, you're going into a meeting and you have this really nice outfit, but you have a mask that doesn't represent the whole look. It's going to become one of those accessories."
Dandeneau points to Japan, where masks have become an indelible part of that country's hugely influential street style. "People have really embraced that look," she says. "It's been done before, now we're adopting it here."
There is a parallel to be drawn between masks and eye glasses, another accessory worn on the face that has made the leap from functional need to fashion must-have.
Though Buddy Holly, patron saint of both rock 'n' roll and the bespectacled, was arguably the first to make glasses cool, their journey from geek to chic has been long and winding. But as frames became more interesting, fashionable and flattering, many people started eschewing their contact lenses in favour of "eyewear." Famous women started wearing their glasses on the red carpet. And then, the logical endpoint: people with perfect vision started buying trendy frames with prescription-less lenses.
The glasses example hits on a simple truth: if you design something people actually want to wear and feel good wearing, people will be more inclined to do so.
"And that's just the thing," Taylor agrees. "Whereas, if it's boring and blah, it's like, 'ugh, I have to put on my mask.'"
Clothing isn't just about utility and function. It's also about self-expression. Masks are no different from what we put on the rest of our bodies; they, too, can make a sartorial statement.
"For me, clothing tells the story of who you are, and it's about saying hello without even saying hello," Taylor says. "This is a perfect example of wowing with your first impression. If you're wearing something funky with a great print, it's a conversation piece. And, to be honest, it's a little bit more inviting than a plain black mask, which is associated with robberies or ninjas or darker characters."
"One reason I wanted to use bright prints versus regular cotton is because you're hiding your smile, and that's what's very attractive when you meet people," she says. "With bright and fun prints, it makes people feel more at ease. It's a touch of personality."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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