Three Designers Bringing Style and Personality to the Face Mask and Saving Lives One Stitch at a Time
Photo: Richard Ybarra
At the height of the coronavirus disease pandemic, many may remember nurses at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, fashioning protective gear out of garbage bags. Due to the national shortage of needed and life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE), including gowns, gloves, masks and face shields, medical professionals across the country had to become creative even if the Trump administration could not. It was still early in the pandemic and little was known about how the disease could spread by asymptomatic carriers. The discussion around wearing face coverings relegated masks only to the sick and symptomatic. Masks as a flashpoint issue hadn’t yet become a political wedge.
To prevent further scarcity in what little equipment was available for patients and medical professionals, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and even the White House’s own top surgeon Jerome Adams discouraged the public from buying or hoarding supplies. Combined with a cloth covering, everything from coffee filters to Maxi Pads were imagined as good alternatives to the gold-star N95 respirator due to their mix of breathability and heft in potentially filtering out viral particles. The six-feet-apart rule became a stand in for the paucity of data on the efficacy of mask wearing.
Yet, America’s professional and home-grown needleworkers came out like a cavalry, equipped with an armory of sewing machines, polycotton and natural silk. In one of his daily coronavirus briefings, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a 10-foot sculpture of a selection of thousands of their handiwork donated from Americans from across the country. Coronavirus held its suffocating grip on New York for many months, overburdening the hospital system and every day set new records in cases, hospitalizations, ICU bed occupancy, ventilator usage, and death. Peaking at 952 casualties per day, New York’s morgues burst—spilling its excess onto the streets into curbside refrigerated trucks. Of the outpouring of support in home-crafted masks Cuomo described it as love, “You know what it spells? It spells ‘love’...That’s what the American people are saying.” It is yet unknown how many lives could have been saved had the mask mandate gone into effect much sooner.
Some of those moved and smitten by the everyday heroism enough to stitch it on fabric, especially for those in the medical community, included many LGBTQ ateliers. Famed designer to the stars and Project Runway winner Christiano Siriano was among the first to offer his furloughed staff as a sewing battalion. Others with fewer resources would later see their own jobs threatened or dry up, resorting to making masks as both a way of helping to protect the public as well as their livelihoods.
We spoke to three designers, including a newcomer, offering some of the better mask designs that we have seen in originality, variety, print and appeal. As the mask has become a political ploy to sow discord among Americans along lines of individual freedoms, it’s equal part a display of individuality. From the pragmatist to the haute couturist and everything in between, there’s a mask that suits the mood and moment you’re looking for. Although CDC guidelines discourage use of non-medical-grade homemade masks as a means of optimum filtration against tiny viral aerosolized particles, these stylish cloth masks still offer at least some level of protection for both the wearer and those around them. Besides, they’ll definitely fetch you a compliment.
Photo: Mondo Guerra wearing Z Mask; Assorted masks from Spooky Season Collection
Project Runway’s Season 8 runner up and 2012 All-Star winner, Mondo Guerra is known for his delectable and structured designs and flair for bold and surprising pattern work. As the pandemic hit, events that he’d be creating custom designs for, like RuPaul’s Drag Race, came to a screeching halt, “In the beginning I was really using my technical talents and resources. I started creating a curated weekly mask "series" in the middle of March and to focus on a project during quarantine.”
But his mask creations became more a lifeline than a pastime since, as a gig worker and solo designer, the demand for his traditional work dried up. He applied for relief with the Trump Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans via the U.S. Small Business Administration, but it was in a perpetual pending status. Until it was approved, this only fueled his creativity to offer a service and a way of engaging with fans of his work. Since then, demand for his masks have picked up so much that he has had to hire additional staff to handle communication, stitching and cutting in his Brooklyn-based studio.
His masks don’t betray his design language of using bold patterns. Made available as a collection, they are accordion style, with reversible and contrasting, tasteful print styles, affixed with adjustable ear straps. One past collection, called “Painters Picnic,” was inspired by famed painters Claude Monet, Georgia O'Keeffe and Vincent van Gogh, one dubbed “Sea Glass” was of assorted aquamarine tones, derived from his obsession with collecting the material at the beach, and another called “Botanica,” featured wild blossoms from a series of Latin American countries with various floral prints. He also creates matching dog bandanas for the fashionable pooch.
In addition to his standard mask designs, he releases a special edition variety every few months, “These masks are unique in the way that they are focused as "fashion" masks,” said Guerra.
Since the start of the quarantine, he’s made 26 styles of the special edition masks, designating each mask with a letter of the alphabet, “With my love of color and print, I chose to go with a floral motif that hones my Mexican roots. The Z mask is layered in textures, using sequin florets, navette leaf sequins, and Aurora Borealis crystal rhinestones. Each mask was hand-applied by me, making every mask unique with attention to detail.”
He plans to release another special edition series, starting in October with a limited 20 units only.
Like Christian Siriano, he, too, has donated to the PPE shortage to frontline workers at the height of the pandemic, as well as to raise funds for a few causes he supports, “I have donated masks to hospitals, as well as a percentage of sales to different Black Lives Matter organizations. We also donate our remnants to schools, other makers, and currently I am working on an exciting project where I upcycle scraps.”
“Now that venues are opening up and more appearances for performers are being scheduled,“ said Guerra, “work is coming through more and more. But my plan is to continue designing masks and dropping new series each week.”
More About Mondo Guerra’s Masks
Material: 100% cotton or cotton blends, two- and three-ply, depending on the season.
Cost: $20 (standard); $50-$100 (custom, depending on materials and labor).
For purchase: www.mondoguerra.com
Care instructions: Hand wash and hang dry.
Photo: Richard Ybarra
A virtual newcomer to creating designs with fabric, San Francisco-based Richard Ybarra, 34, only just bought his first sewing machine this year. Like Mondo Guerra, designing masks began as a creative outlet, “It was a little hobby that I took up at the beginning of 2020. It was my New Year's resolution. Everything was shut down, so I really had a lot of time to try different things. I started to learn using a basic Singer Start. After sales started to take off in May I upgraded my machine to a computerized Brother SE 600.”
The timing was perhaps a godsend, as shortly thereafter, to avoid a permanent furlough, Ybarra’s company dismissed him temporarily then brought him back after restructuring, during which time he started making masks and posting them on Instagram to make up the shortfall in his income. Suddenly he was getting requests from friends until it took off.
Ybarra works full time at CONRAD, a manufacturer of high-end custom window coverings that are handmade from natural grass fiber. Ybarra said CONRAD boasts a distinguished clientele, among them various famous actors, designers, and a few former US presidents.
“Acting as the liaison between interior designers and CONRAD production gave me understanding and appreciation for the meticulous work and care required to offer a handmade product with exceptional quality to customers who are used to very high-end luxury brands,” said Ybarra.
This influence is visible in the precision and structure of his creations. He has a peculiar fascination with the 80s fashion sensibilities with embroidery, usage of checkered and metallic prints, neon colors and graphic artwork.
“Masks are so boring and cover our most unique feature, our face,” said Ybarra. “For that reason, I try to make something that is different and allows people to show their own individuality.”
In that regard, Ybarra also takes requests and can make custom work that he considers sustainable, “For quality and for reusability I’m constantly trying to improve how masks are constructed to lengthen the life of a mask and hopefully reduce the number of disposable masks, which litter streets, parks, beaches and hiking trails. It’s like disposable blue masks have become the new plastic straw. They are everywhere!”
More About Richard Ybarra’s Masks
Material: Two-ply 100% cotton, duck canvas (for hardier designs), metallic spandex and sequin fabrics.
Cost: $14.99 - $24.99
For purchase: https://www.omgsoextra.com/
Care instructions: Wash and dry cotton masks at low heat. Delicately hand wash and hang dry sequin masks.
Photo: Angie Chuang
Taiwanese-American designer and Parsons School of Design alum Angie Chuang, 31, shares Ybarra's concern about the environment and sustainability so much so, their designs are perhaps the fashion industry’s antidote. (Chuang identifies as gender non-binary.) Founder of A/C SPACE, Chuang specializes in using deadstock fabrics and trims, “We believe in reusing perfectly good materials that would otherwise be destined for landfills. Our goal is to limit the amount of new materials produced to make apparel.”
Operating since 2015, Chuang is a solo designer who has worked for several fashion houses in New York City, including Coach and Theory. Appalled by the waste created by the fashion industry, Chuang created A/C SPACE—a genderless apparel company that welcomes all identities and communities. All of Chuang’s designs bear in mind this philosophy and connects social responsibility to social justice in its many forms. Leveraging various partnerships, they create a brand that reinterprets form and fit with casual wear that is as much about the individual as the threads themselves.
“Clothing has no gender,” said Chuang, “so why should we assign it one?” In doing so, the clothing takes up a new personality, depending on the body wearing it. Chuang’s design aesthetic is minimal, functional and at times futuristic in its statement.
Some of this interplay is also seen in their masks, which is reversible for the wearer to center both form and function in its design concept. It incorporates whimsical patterns that give new life to fabrics that are themselves giving life to others. It’s no surprise that, much like Guerra and Ybarra, Chuang, too, saw a need to create and donate masks to the most vulnerable, “When the pandemic first hit, we immediately flipped our studio into a mask-making machine. Our masks were donated to first responders, frontline workers, friends and family. Thankfully we had enough deadstock cotton to begin making them right away. Eventually, people wanted to start buying masks which is how this project started. Down the line, we will be making sustainably-conscious casual wear for this new way of life.”
Chuang, like the other designers featured here, has also integrated philanthropy to support the causes they care about, “During Pride 2020, we had the Pride Reversible mask, which for the entire month of June 50% of the proceeds were donated to the Ali Forney Center. We also ran a fundraiser for G.L.I.T.S. [Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society], where part of the proceeds were donated to help Black Trans folks purchase permanent housing.”
The events of the past few months are nothing anyone could have predicted. What is clear, however, is that they have really become a reckoning about who we are and what matters to us as a species. Very few have been unaffected by the global pandemic and the many ensuing social issues it exacerbated, especially in the U.S. The measure of who we are can be seen in our response to them, as epitomized by Chuang, “The already troubling retail landscape has been a challenge for A/C SPACE. However, with that came learning and understanding how best I can work with my community. With Pride and the George Floyd protests coinciding this year, we learned that fashion could be more than just a mercurial exchange of payment for goods. It’s a way for us to expand our purpose and contribute to our communities by way of donating and advocating for social change.”
More About Angie Chuang’s Masks
Material: 100% tightly woven cotton.
For purchase: https://www.theacspace.com
Care instructions: Washer and dryer safe.
Support other LGBTQ designers and allies whose styles and stories we love:
Bella Bonita describes itself as a fashion brand created for women by women, specializing in hair products like scrunchies, bandanas and twillies. Stella Hankins, Bella Bonita’s owner and principal designer, is a former addict who employs underemployed women and those in recovery to make these amazing designs out of her studio in Wichita, Kansas.
Material: Triple layer mask featuring a 7 oz canvas, a poly felt filter, and a poly suede cover.
Cost: $20 - $25
For purchase: https://www.bellabonitadesigns.com/collections/masks
Care instructions: Hand wash.
The Phluid Project
Founded by Rob Garrett Smith, The Phluid Project is a gender-free fashion brand created to “empower individuals to be themselves. To express themselves openly, without judgement or fear.” Their movement is to challenge the prevailing thought that inhibits freedom and self-expression. They sell a range of products: tops, bottoms, footwear, body products and accessories.
Material: Two layers of 100% cotton and a lining; comes in packages of two and four masks; some designs have an adjustable noseband.
Cost: $25 - $50
For purchase: https://thephluidproject.com/collections/face-masks
Care instructions: Depending on the mask; machine or hand wash; hang dry.
Created by first generation Nigerian-American Mapate Diop and Evan Fried, DIOP uses traditional Nigerian Ankara prints to make an array of products, including tops, shorts, bucket hats and bandanas. Their design is striking without being overstated. DIOP’s mission is “to help you feel like you.” Although neither founder is a member of the LGBTQ community, Diop and Fried consider themselves allies and have donated over $100,000 to many charities, including Ruth Ellis Center, Detroit Phoenix Center, LGBTQ Freedom Fund, The Okra Project, Marsha P. Johnson Institute, For The Gworls, and LGBTQ Detroit.
Material: Triple layered woven cloth made with 100% wax printed cotton. Adjustable nose clip inserts can be bought separately ($5 for a pack of 10).
For purchase: https://weardiop.com/products/facemask
Care instructions: Machine wash cold, no bleach. Lay flat to dry.
Written and edited by Wesley Wade, Freshfruit CEO and Freshfruit contributor. Follow Wesley @twodoubleyoos (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter),
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