In early March of last year, Jenna Rennert, an influencer and former Vogue editor, was either using whatever she could find to cover her face or foregoing a mask entirely because she never left her house.
Since, she’s invested in a wide range of masks, from brands like Ahida Correale, Jonathan Simkhai and Chic Tweak. She’s even planning what masks she’ll buy in the coming months, such as a colourful print from Royal Jelly Harlem and a Missoni shield for the summer.
“We’re going to be wearing masks for probably longer than we originally anticipated so getting on board with some cute, stylish options is a good idea,” said Rennert. “For me, this is part of my future for a while.”
Rennert doesn’t want to hypothesise about when the pandemic will be over, but points to a sensation experienced by a lot of people in the past year as proof that masks aren’t going anywhere in the short-term: She still has nightmares that she’s in a public space and forgot her mask.
In a year, masks went from rarely-seen to ubiquitous. For brands and retailers, masks emerged as a saving grace during the pandemic, driving much-needed sales as traditional categories plummeted. With restrictions easing and vaccination rollout continuing, however, many brands are already seeing a slowdown in demand and a larger redistribution of consumer spending. Still unclear is whether the pandemic has prompted a lasting cultural shift with western consumers toward mask-wearing, and how long the presence of masks will last in places like the US and Europe.
While there is some speculation that mask-wearing will become a norm in the west as it did in Asia after the outbreak of SARS in the early 2000s, Dr Rachael Piltch-Loeb, associate research scientist at NYU’s School of Global Public Health, and preparedness fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the “culture of individualism” in the US makes that unlikely.
“There are such diverse views about mask-wearing already,” she said. “I don’t see our society in the United States being one where when you go out on the street in summer 2023, the majority of people are wearing masks.”
Eventually Piltch-Loeb thinks masks will be relegated to the “public health tool box,” to be pulled out in certain scenarios, or maybe required in spaces like healthcare facilities.
Thomaï Serdari, professor of marketing and director of the fashion and luxury MBA at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business is more optimistic for the future of the mask market, pointing towards safety concerns and younger consumers embracing the product as another accessory.
“It’s a category that’s here to stay,” she said. “A mask is still a fashion statement.”
It’s a category that’s here to stay.
But growing mask fatigue threatens the item’s fashion associations. Alison Freer, television costume designer and writer for New York Magazine’s Strategist, says she bought probably a hundred masks early on in the pandemic to try out, but after having to wear N95s and blue surgical masks on set for 14 hours a day, she’s a bit tired of mask-wearing in general.
“As far as regular masks go, I think I would wear them in the grocery [store], when I have to be in a tight, enclosed space,” Freer said. “But I think people will ditch the masks extremely quickly … Having to have worn one so much at work, to me it [is] not a fashion accessory.”
Tapering Off Demand
Freer, it seems, isn’t alone: Demand for masks surged last spring but has been slowly climbing back down ever since.
Take Los Angeles-based apparel brand Seeker. After initially giving masks away as a gift with purchase, it started selling them in early April and saw sales for the category explode. Today, Seeker is back up into standard sales numbers for the rest of its business, but the mask category has stalled. Just last week it started to offer masks as a free gift with purchase again.
Others are witnessing similar trends: Many have seen a noticeable decline in demand for masks over the past few weeks, and even months, prompting questions about how they should invest in the category going forward.
I don’t think it can be as lucrative as it was for brands.
For Etsy, mask sales made up almost 15 percent of total transactions on the platform in the second quarter of 2020, but by the fourth quarter, they were down to only four percent. Small brands have seen the same effect: Hillary Taymour, the designer behind New York-based label Collina Strada, estimates sales of masks ranging from $70 to $100 have dropped 50 percent since last April.
Prices of luxury and streetwear masks have also dropped significantly within the secondary market: StockX reported a peak average price of $180 in April of last year, which has since dropped to $80.
“I don’t think it can be as lucrative as it was for brands,” said Serdari. “The volume is going to change.”
That change has caused larger issues for some brands that bet too heavily within the market. “I know a lot of brands who made a lot of inventory, sold it and kept making more, and some of them are definitely stuck with inventory today,” said Brian Weitman, chief executive of Los Angeles-based supply factory STC-QST.
The influx of competition, compounded by the return of the previously sold-out medical-grade masks, has also forced many brands Weitman works with to transition away from the category.
However, there’s still strong demand on the retail buyer side for masks, Taymour notes, with many retailers still including a wide variety of colours and designs in their mask orders.
A Market Beyond Masks
Demand may be in flux now, but last spring, when sales of more traditional offerings dropped off, masks offered a lifeline for many brands and taught them lessons that will inform strategies going forward.
After the initial rush, masks allowed brands to discover ways to transfer momentum to other categories. In Seeker’s case, when mask sales tapered off to a steady level after more options came to market, founder Allyson Ferguson found that masks did so much more for her than just provide cash in a hard time.
“It opened me up to a whole new market,” she said. Ferguson went on to expand the brand into new verticals like loungewear to capitalise on more pandemic-induced trends.
It opened me up to a whole new market.
The category has also allowed brands to develop a relationship with buyers that previously may not have been able to afford their products. Taymour estimates roughly 80 percent of the sales for her first mask came from first-time buyers, with many signing up for email alerts and returning to spend on other purchases. Atoms, a direct-to-consumer sneaker brand, saw similar results — a 300 percent year-over-year overall sales increase in 2020 and an uptick in repeat consumers, which co-founder and chief operating officer Sidra Qasim attributes to its entry into the mask market.
Masks also allow brands a low-risk opportunity to experiment with new patterns and colours. How those perform “can be an indication of where to take the business going forward,” said Mintel analyst Alexis DeSalva.
When the premiums are that strong it’s usually an indication there’s still a lot of demand.
It’s these learnings that will help brands shape where they take their mask offerings in a post-pandemic future. Specialised masks may see increased demand — and brands have to cater accordingly. That includes formalwear options for events or high-tech choices that may include Bluetooth capabilities or speakers, making the mask more of a desirable product than a necessity. Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am and manufacturing company Honeywell have already bet on this vertical by releasing their “Xupermask,” equipped with fans and filters.
Luxury options may have a place in the future, too: While prices have dropped on streetwear and luxury masks on StockX, many still consistently sell over retail value. Artists Travis Scott and Juice Wrld’s masks are currently priced at 70 and 90 percent over retail value respectively.
“When the premiums are that strong it’s usually an indication there’s still a lot of demand,” said Jesse Einhorn, senior economist at StockX. “That’s a very healthy level of excitement.”