Fashion blogger Jaye Gipson-Trimble wanted a mask that matched her confident style, so she made her own. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Illinois’ mask mandate is saving some small businesses — and inspiring new trends

From $60 streetwear-inspired designs to custom prints to medical-grade materials, compliance with Illinois’ face mask mandate is having a fashion moment.

When Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a mandate May 1 requiring Illinoisans to wear masks in any public place where social distancing guidelines can’t be followed, Jaye Gipson-Trimble knew she would comply, but with one caveat: “If I have to wear it, let me wear something that’s going to look cute.”

The fashion blogger quickly set to work making her own mask from a sewing pattern she found online, using a fabric she had been saving for something special — a bold black and white zebra print that fit right in with her typical, bold wardrobe.

“I think it’s really important for people to have things that really speak to their sense of style or make them feel better about the whole process of having to wear [masks] at all,” said the 51-year-old Washington Park resident, who started 10 years ago to serve up fashion inspiration for plus-sized women.

With no end in sight to the state’s mask requirements and a national shortage of personal protective equipment making cloth masks the norm for non-medical workers, a cottage industry of mask-makers has exploded in recent weeks to meet the sudden surge of demand.

Indie makers on the craft marketplace Etsy were among the first to offer handmade masks, and designers quickly diversified their offerings: Just like other utilitarian accessories, from smartphone cases to luggage tags, they’ve quickly become canvases for self-expression. Today, the site lists over 700,000 styles of face masks for sale.

Big-name clothing brands are in the mix, too. Labels like Old Navy, J. Crew and Madewell, as well as higher-end designers like Rag & Bone and Alice and Olivia, are now offering masks — either in multipacks or singles — that range in price from $10-$50. Most are made of cotton and are washable, for continued use as the pandemic draws on. They reflect the season’s trends, with prints in floral, gingham, pastel, neon, animal print, camo, tie-dye and denim.

Materials matter

Even companies that don’t make clothing are flooding the mask marketplace as demand balloons. GIR, a company that specializes in heat-resistant spatulas, is now selling face masks that hold filters made with their pharmaceutical-grade silicone.

Experts have specific recommendations for the materials that make masks most effective for their intended purpose: preventing the transmission of COVID-19 via respiratory droplets.

Researchers at the University of Chicago released the results of a study last month examining the efficacy of different fabrics in preventing COVID-19 transmission. They found that tightly woven cotton, layered with polyester-spandex chiffon, performed best. When combined, these materials are nearly as effective as the gold standard — N95 masks — at filtering aerosol particles.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises masks be made of at least two layers of cotton fabric to allow breathing without restriction. In masks that hold filters, like GIR’s, HEPA filters used in common household appliances like air conditioners are the leading insert material experts recommend.

In this instance, function is far more important than form.

“It’s all about breathability: you’ve got to be able to breathe out of them,” said local designer Audrey Lauck. “So as fashiony as I want to get, because I have a lot of fabric that’s not cotton but very fun and sparkly and sequin-y, you can’t really do that if you’re working towards breathability. It’s gotta be breathable; it’s already limiting.”

Local designers join the fray

Lauck, who is well-known by Umphrey’s McGee fans for turning photography of their concert lighting into colorful fabric used for purses, t-shirts, sleep masks and everything in between, says she can barely keep up with the demand for her reversible masks. She’s made at least 1,000 of them in her West Town apartment.

Each mask, which she sells in packs of two for $25, has a metal wire to conform to noses and a slit so buyers can add an additional filter if they want to. On the elastic bands that secure behind the ears, Lauck adds beads that slide up and down for customizable sizing. One side features her famous “lights” print and the other side is solid.

“I thought that most people would want to wear the more subdued side, but ... they all choose the exciting side,” the 34-year-old said. “It makes me feel like we still want to be fun, we still want to be creative, we still want to have fun with ourselves even with these masks.”

Supply meets demand

For some local designers, pivoting to masks has offered their struggling businesses a crucial lifeline.

Mario Maldonado, who owns Chicago Midwestmade in Pilsen, was worried about his apparel company when COVID-19 hit the city. But with the help of his seamstress mother-in-law, he started making cotton masks, which he sells for around $25 each.

“I was a bit scared in the beginning because I do have a business, which is in fashion, and I know that when the world is going through what it’s going through, nobody cares about fashion,” he said. But the 35-year-old has been pleasantly surprised: The masks are selling almost as much as his t-shirts. “I actually have to turn down some smaller projects that I normally wouldn’t because I just have to keep up with demand.”

Business is also booming for Roger Rodriguez, co-owner of the streetwear boutique Jugrnaut in the Loop, who started designing masks with vintage Ralph Lauren Polo teddy bear fabric and other hard-to-find prints when he couldn’t find a mask for himself that fit his aesthetic.

Launching his own fashion company has long been a dream of Rodriguez, and his vision for unique mask designs gave him the platform he’s been waiting for to venture out with his own company, Mr. Rogers Does. At a time when many small businesses are facing catastrophic losses, the 41-year-old Near West Sider has found opportunity with his mask fashion brand.

“I wake up at 5:30 a.m. and I start sewing at 6 a.m. and then I’m usually done around 9, 9:30 p.m. This has been since I launched the site almost, so almost a month I’ve been doing that every single day,” he said. On Mother’s Day, he took a 5-hour break to go share some pizza with his mom.

Masks as fashion

The need to comply with Illinois’ current mandate doesn’t fully explain the demand for designer face masks. Pritzker’s order, currently in effect through May 31, only requires “a face-covering or a mask.” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams released a video with the CDC demonstrating how to make a compliant mask from a scarf, towel or old T-shirt.

But Rodriguez says he’s not surprised to see that consumers are treating masks like any other fashion accessory.

“It’s nothing new,” Rodriguez said. “It’s always been a trend to be different or try to get the more rare item because you don’t want to look like everybody else. … It makes sense for it to transfer over to the mask world.”

His most expensive mask is $60, and he describes his market as niche buyers: “they know that it’s rare, they know that it’s cool so they have no problem paying $60 for it.”

Some are willing to shell out even more for a complete look. Designer Jennifer Akese-Burney, whose brand Akese Stylelines is based in Chicago and known for combining African prints and western fabrics, charges $27 for her bright and vibrant face masks. But customers also have the option of purchasing a matching headwrap and neckpiece, and the combination costs $115.

Phone, keys, wallet, mask

Fashion blogger Gipson-Trimble said she doesn’t know if masks are here to stay, but she doesn’t think they’re going away anytime soon.

“Probably until the end of this year, we’ll be rocking them one way or another,” she said. “Maybe once there’s a vaccine, maybe they will drop off.”

Maldonado, the Pilsen-based designer, predicts that the trend of masks-as-accessories will far outlast virus-related mandates and become a fashion staple.

“As of now, it’s definitely the new norm,” he said. “When you leave the house you’re like, ‘I’ve got my phone, my keys, my wallet.’ ‘Mask’ is now part of that list. … It’s almost like instilled in us at this point.”

Rodriguez agrees. “It’s engraved in our brains,” he said. “I’m positive that once everything goes back to normal, we’re already programmed. So it’s going to become the norm, yeah — One hundred percent.”

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