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What started as a stop-gap measure for struggling companies has become a sustainable industry.

With the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, many Indian businesses were forced to sink or swim. But the virus that created the problem also unwittingly offered a lifevest to some business owners.

Cotton masks and face covers have become a necessary tool for surviving this pandemic, especially since their use is mandated by many state governments in India. And apparel brands, from everyday fashion to affordable prêt-à-porter, have all jumped on the bandwagon of making cotton masks.

Indie brands like Fabindia and Tjori are creating masks in beautiful block-prints and weaves, others like women’s workwear brand Fable Street have made masks in subtle prints and colors, and others still like designers Masaba Gupta and Payal Singhal have added their own aesthetic to make the humble cotton mask a fashion statement.

Masks are now a global trend with couture labels like Louis Vuitton and Fendi producing masks with their signature insignia. In India, too, designer brands like Anita Dongre, Nitya Bajaj, Shivan and Narresh, and Manish Tripathi are experimenting with incorporating their own signature styles into masks.

But this mask phenomenon has its origins in simple functionality. “Our initial focus was to make masks that were comfortable, soft, and sanitized. We started small with one variety of these and realized that there was a clear demand for such face covers,” explains Ayushi Gudwani, founder of Fable Street.

And that demand is clear from the countless brands that have mushroomed in India over the past couple of months. It seems every other targeted advertisement on social media platforms like Instagram is for a cotton mask, from labels big and small.

This is likely to have been spurred in part by the Indian Council for Medical Research’s guidelines for business owners making them. But another reason why businesses chose to pivot to masks was India’s coronavirus lockdown itself.

Gudwani’s Fable Street, based in New Delhi, for instance, began making these masks when India’s coronavirus lockdown began in March as a means to keep the business going. All deliveries and business activities were shut and only companies making essentials were allowed to function. Masks fit squarely in that category.

Non-medical cotton masks are also popular because they appear less daunting and don’t have the instant symbolic connection to a disease. A beautiful print could, instead, signal safeguarding oneself and one’s community, without the connotation of a threat. “They are functional yet less intimidating than medical masks. With masks becoming mandatory, they will be a permanent part of our look, and people will get creative,” says Ronita Mukerjee, executive director for client services at brand management company Landor Associates. “These masks are almost a form of self expression, an extension of fashion.”

For others, masks were a crossover between a business opportunity and using one’s brand equity for social good.

Cause and effect

Indian designer Masaba Gupta entered the cotton masks business in April with the aim of donating it to those in need. It was also a way for Gupta to keep her Mumbai-based business going.

Soon after, though, Gupta’s brand started retailing cotton face covers for her regular clientele. Her affordable luxury line now sells these masks at upwards of Rs250 ($3.32) apiece, whereas the cheapest ones in the market cost roughly Rs40 per mask. Some masks with gold foil, potentially for occasion wear, cost Rs750 per mask. Gupta’s website, though, notes that the brand will donate a mask to different charities as well as police personnel for every mask it sells.

Designer Payal Singhal has a similar story. She began making masks for a limited, niche audience primarily to spread awareness on social media. These were part of a campaign where Bollywood celebrities and influencers shared photos of themselves wearing Singhal’s masks.

“We started this mask campaign with the thought of coming together as a community to spread awareness about wearing a mask, and also thanking our loyal customers for staying home and staying safe,” says Singhal.

Fable Street, too, made masks initially for donation, as did Greendigo, a certified organic kids wear brand. “We began making masks from organic cotton to distribute them to police personnel and others in need,” says Meghna Kishore, co-founder of Greendigo.

Kishore found that synthetic masks were uncomfortable to wear over longer periods of time, especially given India’s scorching summer sun.

For apparel brand Fabindia, the social good came from generating employment for its artisans.  The company says it can produce up to 300,000 masks a month, and intends to double its capacity this month. This will, in turn, also increase the number of handicraft artisans Fabindia employs for making these masks.

But a small social cause seems to have also given businesses confidence there is a clear demand for stylish masks in the market.

I’ll take five, please

Fable Street, which began with upcycling its fabricby repurposing old apparel and scraps of cloth—is now creating different variants of masks after feedback from its customers. For instance, a common complaint was that a cotton mask fogs up the lenses of those who wear eyeglasses. Gudwani, who wears glasses, tried on different cuts and shapes, and zeroed in on a design that solved the problem.

Other complaints came from of parents of small kids and young adults who were unhappy with the masks in the market. “We found that these masks were not breathable,” says Kishore of Greendigo. “Besides, a cotton mask is something that will be close to your lips. And a child wearing it might end up licking it. We wanted to make masks that were made of natural fibers and were completely toxin-free.”

These brands saw proof of concept in the surge in demand for these masks. Fable Street, for instance, began selling masks in packs of fives and 10s. “Soon, every other order that we fulfilled was a pack of 10. And this is when our research shows that a majority of our customers live in nuclear family setups,” she says.

This demand, though not yet directly quantifiable, can also be seen from the vast number of businesses pivoting to manufacturing masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), and hand and surface sanitizers. As the businesses pivoted to keep some revenue stream alive during the lockdown, many had immediate cash-flow struggles too, says Praveen Khandelwal, general secretary of the Confederation of All India Traders.

“These small businesses thus chose the pivots that needed the least amount of investment and restructuring,” he explains. This would also explain how in a short span of two months, India became the second largest producer of PPEs in the world. Khandelwal estimates that this industry, currently at Rs30,000 crore ($3.98 billion) in India, will likely reach Rs1 lakh crore ($13.26 billion) by early 2021.

Matchy matchy

Despite being reusable, Indians are buying multiple masks for themselves and their loved ones. One reason for this could be that a cotton mask needs to be washed and dried in the sun after every use.

For fitness enthusiasts, for instance, a face cover must also take into account the additional sweat that follows a workout. Sportswear brand Puma has made masks keeping that in mind. “Designed with anti-odor finish, these masks also come with moisture wicking finish that helps in pulling sweat and moisture away from skin,” says Abhishek Ganguly, general manager for Puma India and Southeast Asia.

The other reason, of course, is aesthetic. As the lockdown gradually lifts and India goes into “unlock mode,” more people would be stepping out of their homes. “As we adapt to the new normal, we expect this product line to evolve as per consumer needs and trends. Eventually, I think it will also become a form of expression for designers and brands who may look at masks as an add-on element to their apparel collections,” Ganguly adds.

This would mean being armed with masks and sanitizers at all times. And for the fashion conscious, this means owning masks to match your outfits.

This has also been true for the few Indian weddings that have taken place during the lockdown and the bride and groom have worn masks. Now imagine a bride wearing a bright red lehenga with an abysmally dull blue surgical mask.

Enter, a matching face cover that has the same details and embroidery as a wedding dress.

Some brands hope this will be a viable product line even beyond the pandemic. But Gudwani warns that this may not be the case. “I think once the vaccine or treatment for coronavirus comes, people will stop wearing masks,” she says. And because these don’t filter fine particulate matter or pollutants, their use is limited to prevention of flu. “Even the most comfortable cotton mask is still uncomfortable to wear always. Given a choice, people will stop wearing these,” she says.

For now, though, cotton face covers have settled into the post-Covid-19 world.