CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.
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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Hey, everyone. Cardiff and Stacey here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Valerie Steele is an historian of fashion in New York. She's also the director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. We called Valerie to ask her about masks - the masks that people have been increasingly wearing since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
VALERIE STEELE: Well, it's interesting because the idea of masks as personal protective technology, like medical masks, surgical masks or N95 masks, that's something that goes back to the end of the 19th century, where, in Europe, surgeons realized that they could help prevent germs and bacteria from their mouth entering into people's wounds while they were operating.
GARCIA: As the coronavirus pandemic tragically lingers on, a lot of people in the U.S. are going to continue to wear masks out in public. And in some states and cities, masks are now either mandatory or at least strongly encouraged when people are out. And we wanted to speak with Valerie because we've been curious about something. As time does go on, will more people start thinking of masks as just part of what they wear every day - a part of their outfit?
VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And if that happens, we'll all start probably looking for masks that match our individual styles, you know? And that, of course, could make a real business opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs in the world of fashion and design who can make masks that we'll all want to wear.
GARCIA: Valerie says that has happened before in other parts of the world, when they had to deal with earlier outbreaks of contagious diseases.
STEELE: Fast forward to the late 20th century. In East Asia, over the past 15 years or so with a variety of pandemics like SARS and MERS, people in Hong Kong, China and Japan started increasingly to wear masks to protect themselves but also to protect the people around them and to show sort of civic responsibility. And not only was mask-wearing ubiquitous; this is a part of the world where people are very interested in fashion. And so quite quickly, you also saw fashion masks being worn.
GARCIA: Now, it's early in the trend, but Valerie does suspect that something like this is also happening now in the U.S. and Europe as a response to coronavirus. And a bunch of fashion designers and other companies have already pivoted to selling more masks with differing styles and designs. There's even a maskclub.com, which will send you a new mask each month for 9.99...
VANEK SMITH: No.
GARCIA: ...A month.
VANEK SMITH: That's - no.
VANEK SMITH: The monthly thing's out of control.
GARCIA: It's there. It exists.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Mask club.
GARCIA: But there is more to this story than just business and fashion. Right now, for example, wearing a mask has become part of a culture war here in the U.S.
VANEK SMITH: Yes. In some parts of the country, people are protesting against being ordered to wear a mask. They don't want to be ordered by the government to do something. The protesters say they are trying to protect their personal freedom.
GARCIA: Yeah, and the advocates of wearing masks are saying that it's about science. They point to evidence showing that if you wear a mask, there is less of a chance that you'll infect other people if you have coronavirus. And so they can say it's about their personal freedom, too - the freedom to move through public spaces without getting infected.
VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Valerie says for her, wearing a mask can send a message of solidarity.
STEELE: And I think that this idea of fashionizing (ph) masks is a good way to normalize them and to say that this is - you don't need to be scared. You just need to be part of this. We're all in it together.
GARCIA: Now, traditionally, in non-pandemic times, masks have been thought of as symbols of defiance or rebellion or even secrecy or danger. Bank robbers wear them in movies; so do outlaws, rebels, cowboys. Within fashion, that's always given masks a certain cachet - a cool cachet, Valerie says.
STEELE: It's a plus to be scary and dangerous-looking in fashion.
GARCIA: (Laughter) Oh, really?
STEELE: There's a tremendous cachet with the kind of charisma of evil.
GARCIA: Of course, in the non-fashion, non-Hollywood world, masks could also be perceived as threatening. But now during the pandemic, wearing a mask often just means that you're following the rules. The intent is to be safe and communicate that solidarity. But that is still a different psychological association with masks than the one people had before the pandemic.
VANEK SMITH: And this is where fashion might be able to play a role by bridging those two associations. When designers personalize a mask and offer more variety, they can preserve some of what makes wearing them appealing, making them cool and stylish and even fun. So, you know, if you like masks that looks dystopian or mysterious or edgy, you could have that option. The point is that if making masks fashionable also convinces more people to wear them, then the act of wearing a mask itself might seem less threatening. It might just be normal or maybe even fun, exciting. After the break, we will speak to a fashion designer who saw her business dry up almost entirely until she pivoted to making masks.
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VANEK SMITH: Chelsea Klukas is the founder of Lumen Couture. It is a one-woman shop - just her. And she makes wearables, which are fashion items that embed electronics and technology into stuff you can wear. She designs like fancy, red-carpet-type gowns that shimmer and sparkle when you're walking for, you know, very high-end events and ceremonies.
GARCIA: Yeah, among other products - but since the start of the pandemic, the kinds of events where people would wear these clothes have been cancelled, so fewer people want those gowns. So Chelsea has shifted most of her business to making masks, which people do want now. She's designed a black mask that has a screen across the front almost like a scoreboard, saying things like, six feet away.
CHELSEA KLUKAS: And the cool thing about the tech that I've been working with is that it's really, really thin, so it's about as thick as a sheet of paper and just as flexible. So this is a really thin, little piece of electronics that can be programmed to show text.
VANEK SMITH: Chelsea has a relationship with manufacturers in China, and they make the masks and the electronics. And then she assembles them herself before mailing them out to customers. So far, she has sold about 500 masks. And, in fact, right now about 75% of Lumen Couture's sales are masks. She went from 0% to 75% within just the last couple of months. And Chelsea said she had no idea they would become so popular when she first started making them by hand.
KLUKAS: It was, like, a Sunday morning. I started sewing. And then I record a little how-to video, and I put it up on YouTube. And it really, really resonated.
GARCIA: The masks, which Chelsea sells online, each cost $95, so they are a bit pricey as masks go. Now, remember that her masks also include that added electronics component. Chelsea does say that at first, she was a bit uncomfortable making money off masks during a pandemic, so she does give a big share of what she sells to a COVID relief charity. Plus, her to-do videos are still online if people want to have a go at making their own masks and not spend the money.
VANEK SMITH: And, obviously, Chelsea does need to make a profit from selling the masks. This is her business. And just like everybody else who works for a salary, Chelsea needs to get paid for the time she spends making masks. Also, there is a business lesson here. Demand for her other products has completely collapsed, so Chelsea has shifted her supply to make masks. And those are in demand.
KLUKAS: We've seen other companies do this as well. Certainly, there's other apparel brands who have very quickly pivoted to selling masks and even on - apparel who have sort of pivoted their business models to things that are needed is something that is very important for every company, as well as just kind of fulfilling the demand of things that people want.
GARCIA: Now, Chelsea does not know - nobody knows - whether masks will remain in such high demand for a while or whether this is temporary. But if it's not temporary, she says...
KLUKAS: That'll really change how we think about fashion and accessorizing and even how we think about makeup, like, you know - rest in peace the bold lip because everyone will be wearing masks. And, you know, we'll have to emphasize our eyes. So I think this could be something that sticks. And it's interesting to think about how that's changed fashion and accessorizing, which, you know, really, for a long time, there hasn't been an introduction of a new accessory to this type of scale.
VANEK SMITH: No more bold lip for you, Cardiff. Sorry.
GARCIA: (Laughter) Yeah. It's about time I started...
VANEK SMITH: You're going to have to switch over to the eyes.
GARCIA: ...Emphasizing my eyes. Yeah, exactly (laughter).
VANEK SMITH: It's all about smizing (ph), Cardiff. I'll talk to you about that after the show.
GARCIA: OK (laughter). But I think the lesson of what Chelsea is doing is that for a lot of us, masks are probably going to remain an item that we need, at least in the short term. And so what she and other fashion designers and manufacturers are doing is to try to ensure that we can also end up getting them in a style that we want.
VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.
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