Whether you think life imitates art or art imitates life, one thing is certain, fashion always finds a way to elevate everyday items.
As the coronavirus pandemic lingers on, designer masks have in their own way, played a part in normalizing many of the changes we are experiencing. They seemed to be our first voluntary embrace of the new normal; our way of accepting what was happening on our own terms.
The marriage of motifs & material seemed to happen overnight- a pivot towards a sartorial savoir-faire. As we emerged from curfew, designers were ready to adorn us and we soaked it up, like the warmth of spring after a very cold winter.
These days precise creases, embroidery, lace & pearls, gem stones, bold patterns and textured fabrics replace the generic fare. As artists incorporated signature elements of their style into these smaller pieces, their masks looked like extensions of their core collections. “Who made your mask?” is now a common question.
We may have underestimated how much Covid-19 changed the way we communicate and express ourselves; bespoke masks gave us a way to express ourselves and connect with others. Pauline Bellamy revealed “People get emotional when they receive their new masks, they are like kids opening a gift at Christmas. There is something special in wearing an everyday item created just for you and it is humbling to see how much joy something so small can bring someone.”
Government intervention has spurred this interest. While it is not a criminal offence to venture outdoors without a mask; the business community’s swift support of recommendations from the Ministry of Health & Wellness & The Covid Monitoring Unit made it close to impossible to conduct business without a face covering.
This collective responsibility and new form of self-expression has other practical benefits. The more non-medical face masks made available to the public, the less strain there was on the medical-grade materials front line workers require to protect themselves on the job. Additionally, mask production cushioned the financial fallout which many designers experienced due to the ripple effect of event cancellations during the Easter & Summer months. In varying degrees, mask making kept their businesses afloat and introduced their brands to a new and captive market.
The charge was led by those in public life. For Candi Nicholls of CandiFab, it was Government Minister, Marsha Caddle, who persuaded her to start. “A few people asked if I was making masks, and I really had no intention to, but Marsha persuaded me to make one, then two more. With her in the public eye, people saw my work and demand increased from there,” she recalled.
For Karishma Chugani of Panache Island Wear, it was her relationship with Kemar Saffrey, founder of the Barbados Alliance to End Homelessness that got her started. “I was aware of some of the pending challenges the country was about to face so I reached out to Kemar Saffrey to find out what he needed; he and I served together as members of Global Shapers Bridgetown hub. He told me the country is shutting down, he had seventy- five new residents and couldn’t get any masks. I offered to make and donate them.” The process of preparing what was at the time a large order, helped Panache swiftly transition once the demand really picked up and spoke to Chugani’s mission of developing a business that was socially responsive.
Much like Candi, Rhaj Paul did not intend to make masks. It was his makeshift face covering and its subsequent photo on Instagram drove demand. Describing his foray into mask making as ‘a tremendous growth experience’ he is reflective on the transition. “This whole experience has been transformative, from the trial and error of making the mask pattern, sourcing materials from limited supply, time management and focusing on the admin side of my business. My girlfriend stepped in to help me streamline the orders, do bookkeeping and delivery. I would not have been able to deliver at this high level. It showed me how good admin and planning can really enhance my business and help me to scale in the future, it has been an invaluable lesson.”
For Pauline Bellamy intuition prepared her for this season, “As soon as I heard about Covid-19 my spirit told me to start making masks. At that time, you couldn’t find patterns online, I started from scratch. Experimenting with mask making became a family affair, my nephew started wearing them long before they were required so as soon as there was a demand, people knew I had.”
It was this foresight that guided her gathering of material, “Over the years my sister and I built up a large inventory of fabric and accessories. We would joke to justify the size of the stockpile by saying that one day the world may shut down and there will be no more fabric to buy! Of course, this seemed ridiculous at the time…but here we are.”
Each designer has taken the changes Covid-19 has thrust upon them in stride. Advocacy for mask wearing expanded their clientele unexpectedly and tested their ability to reframe their business. They have certainly risen to the occasion and the nation is grateful.