Most Indian companies were forced to sink or swim, with the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. But the virus which generated the issue also unwittingly gave some business owners a lifevest. Cotton masks and face covers have become a vital tool to survive this pandemic, especially since many state governments in India mandate their use. And clothing companies have all hopped on the bandwagon of making cotton masks, from casual wear to affordable prêt-à-porter.
Indie brands like Fabindia and Tjori produce masks in beautiful block prints and weave, others like the female workwear company Fable Street rendered masks in subtle prints and colours, and others like designers Masaba Gupta and Payal Singhal added their own esthetics to make the humble cotton mask a fashion statement.
Masks are now a global phenomenon, manufacturing masks with their signature insignia by couture labels including Louis Vuitton and Fendi. Designer brands such as Anita Dongre, Nitya Bajaj, Shivan and Narresh, and Manish Tripathi are also experimenting with integrating their own signature designs into masks in India.
Cotton Masks Demand is High
And the demand is evident from the countless brands that have been mushrooming in India over the last few months. Any other targeted ads on social media sites like Instagram seems to be for a cotton mask, from big and small brands. It is likely to have been partially spurred on by the recommendations of the Indian Council for Medical Research for doing business owners. But Indian coronavirus lockdown itself was another reason businesses chose to pivot to masks.
For example, Gudwani’s New Delhi-based Fable Street began making these masks when India’s coronavirus lockdown started in March as a means to keep the business going. Both deliveries and business operations were shut down, and only companies that rendered important items were allowed to operate. Masks squarely fit into that category.
Also common are non-medical cotton masks because they look less intimidating and don’t have the immediate symbolic link to a disease. Instead, a beautiful print could signal to protect yourself and your friends, without the connotation of a threat.
Indian designer Masaba Gupta Joins Cotton Masks Business
Among some, masks were a bridge between an ability to do business and to use one’s brand value among social good. In April Indian designer Masaba Gupta joined the cotton masks business to donate it to those in need. This was also a way for Gupta to carry on her business based in Mumbai.
However, soon after, Gupta ‘s brand began retailing cotton face coverings for her regular clientele. Her affordable luxury line now markets these masks up to Rs 250 per capita, while the cheapest masks on the market cost around Rs 40 per capita. Some gold foil masks, possibly wearing for occasions, cost Rs 750 per mask. However, Gupta’s website states that with every mask it sells, the company will donate a mask to different charities, as well as police personnel.
Payal Singhal the designer has a similar story. She started making masks specifically to spread awareness on social media for a small, niche audience. These were part of a campaign in which celebrities and influencers from Bollywood posted pictures of themselves wearing the masks from Singhal.
Initially also, Fable Street made masks for donation, as did Greendigo, certified organic children wearing the brand.
Avoiding Synthetic Masks
Kishore discovered that synthetic masks, particularly considering India’s scorching summer sun, were uncomfortable to wear for longer periods of time. The social good for apparel brand Fabindia came from creating jobs for its artisans. The company says it can produce up to 300,000 masks a month and plans this month to double its capacity. This, in turn, will also increase the number of handicraftsmen employed by Fabindia in making these masks. But a small social cause also seems to have given businesses confidence that there’s a strong demand on the market for fashionable masks.
Following feedback from its customers, Fable Street, which began upcycling its fabric – repurposing old apparel and cloth scraps – is now creating various variants of masks. For example, a common complaint was that the lenses of those wearing eyeglasses are fogged up by a cotton mask. Gudwani, who wears glasses, tried different shapes and cuts and zeroed in on a design that solved the issue. Other reports came from parents of small children and young adults who were disappointed with the market’s masks.
These brands have seen evidence of concept in the surge in demand for these masks. For example, Fable Street started selling masks in packs of fives and 10s.
Masks Industry to Excel by 2021
While not yet explicitly quantifiable, this market can also be seen by the large number of companies that are pivoting to manufacturing masks, personal protective equipment, and hand and surface sanitizers. While the companies pivoted to hold some revenue source alive during the lockout, many also had immediate cash-flow problems, said Praveen Khandelwal, secretary-general of the All India Traders Confederation.
That would also clarify how India became the world’s second-largest PPE producer in a short span of two months. Khandelwal predicts that this industry will likely cross Rs 1 lakh crore. It is by early 2021, now at Rs 30,000 crore in India. Though reusable, Indians buy multiple masks for themselves and their loved ones. One explanation for this may be that after every use a cotton mask. It washes and dries in the sun.
For fitness lovers, for example, the extra sweat after a workout. It always needs to take into account in a face mask. Keeping that in mind, Sportswear company Puma has made masks.
Matching Masks with the Dress
Of course, the other explanation is aesthetic. When the lockout lifts slowly and India enters “unlock mode,” more people will come out of their homes.
That will also mean arming yourself with masks and sanitizers. And this means, for the fashion-conscious, owning masks to suit your outfits. This was true also for the few Indian weddings. It takes place during the lockdown, and masks wearing by the bride and groom. Then imagine a bride wearing an abysmally bland blue surgical mask with a bright red lehenga. Join, a matching face mask that has the same features as a wedding dress and embroidery.
Well beyond the pandemic, some brand names hope this will be a viable product line. But Gudwani warns that maybe this is not the case.
And because these contain no small particulate matter or contaminants, their use limits to flu prevention.
Cotton face coverings have settled into the post-COVID-19 world for now though.