The luxury face mask has arrived

Masked up.
Masked up.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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Humans have an old habit of turning utility products into decorative ones, so it was perhaps inevitable that face masks would become fashion accessories after Covid-19 forced them onto the faces of populations around the world. Now companies such as J.Crew and Gap are selling masks, and hordes of home sewers are peddling them on Etsy.

But where there is fashion, there is the potential for luxury too. Within the mask market, a small high-end segment has emerged in the form of pricey designer masks and sought-after styles that trade at a premium on resale sites.

Some designers normally in the business of producing runway collections have recently added masks to their offerings. Collina Strada sells stunning masks adorned in bright prints and tied with bows. They cost $100. Proenza Schouler’s $100 masks come in materials such as a silk-viscose blend satin and a nylon-cotton gingham print, though both are sold out. More affordable are Prabal Gurung’s $55 masks, made of a floral jacquard fabric, and Erdem’s $65 mask, fashioned from printed Italian cotton.

In each case the companies appear to have only made a limited number of masks and are donating some or all of the proceeds from sales to Covid-19 relief efforts or other causes.

These fashion masks are not medical-grade, as that would require specialized materials. But function is only partly the point. The masks are as much about the visual statement they make as they are about anything practical.

Maybe the most popular face coverings in fashion come from Off-White, the company created by Virgil Abloh, who is also men’s creative director at Louis Vuitton. In April, fashion search engine Lyst ranked a $95 Off-White mask printed with diagonal intersecting arrows the hottest men’s product of that quarter based on sales across online stores and factors such as search volume.

It isn’t Off-White’s first foray into masks. For years Off-White and labels associated with streetwear such as A Bathing Ape (aka Bape) have been producing masks—sometimes branded as pollution masks—and sold them mostly to customers in Asia, where mask-wearing is common. Lyst noted that rappers such as Travis Scott and Future have been appearing in Off-White masks since 2016. The pandemic has created a broader surge of interest. Lyst said searches for fashion face masks jumped 496% over that quarter as shoppers also sought masks from companies such as Fendi and Marcelo Burlon.

On StockX, a sneaker and streetwear resale marketplace, masks are a growing category. In the first couple months after the March lockdowns started in the US, mask sales tripled, according to Jesse Einhorn, senior economist at StockX. Prices grew too.

While the site sells masks from a handful of companies, those by Off-White and Bape are the most popular. StockX has been selling about 200 units a month of one particular Off-White mask with diagonal black-and-white stripes, up from around 80 prior to the lockdowns, Einhorn said. Bape’s WGM shark mask is another top seller, with about 40 selling per month and an average resale price of $124 as of this writing, a big premium over its $40 retail price.

The markup is a function of the same laws of supply and demand that drive resale prices of Hermès handbags. ”For most of the coveted products on our platform, demand generally outstrips supply and as that imbalance grows, resale prices climb,” Einhorn said.