Seattle designers are making masks fashionable

The pivot from apparel to protection has been a lifeline for some local creators. 

Since March, local fashion designer Erika Dalya Massaquoi has sold over 4,000 face masks made from Ankara, an African wax fabric. (Victoria Kovios; The OULA Company)

These days, on her now-daily visits to the downtown Seattle post office, Erika Dalya Massaquoi feels a bit like a VIP. There’s no red carpet, but the postal workers have come to expect her swooping in right before the last truck leaves. They’ve even taken to meeting her at her car to help unload dozens of boxes ready to be shipped across the country. “If I only come four days a week, they'll notice if I've missed a day,” Massaquoi says.

It’s every emerging fashion designer’s dream: being so slammed with online orders that the people at the post office start recognizing you. Except that in this case, instead of the eye-popping tunics and dresses that Massaquoi’s brand, The OULA Company, is known for, the boxes are filled with hand-sewn pleated masks.

In March, as face coverings became increasingly recognized as a way to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus, The OULA Company’s Seattle-based sewers started fashioning masks out of the brand’s trademark brightly patterned Ankara, an African wax fabric. “Customers wanted masks. They were demanding masks,” Massaquoi says. She has already sold more than 4,000. “It's become another product, another garment that we've had to add to our lifestyle.”

Like Massaquoi, local fashion designers and small brands are currently working at breakneck speed to fill an insistent demand for a piece of cloth(ing) that, until recently, they had never made. Many are using existing fabric from collections and clothes that might not get made any time soon. Amid layoffs, canceled fashion shows, missed opportunities and returned orders, it’s a bittersweet lifeline for small businesses unsure of how to make it through the year.

Local fashion designer Juliet Sander with her daughter, wearing masks Sander started making after crucial networking and sales events fell through due to the pandemic. (Juliette Fabbri)

Local fashion designer Juliet Sander with her daughter, wearing masks Sander started making after crucial networking and sales events fell through due to the pandemic. (Juliette Fabbri)

For Seattle-based designer Juliet Sander, who launched a new collection just as Gov. Jay Inslee issued the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, making masks has been a saving grace. After crucial in-store events and associated sales for her brand Juliette Fabbri evaporated in a matter of days, it helped Sander keep busy and her friends and family stocked with masks. But after she started selling her masks (which are in the same utilitarian chic style as her dresses) on Instagram, “it turned out it was a way for me to raise money, to keep the business going,” Sander says.

“I didn't really want to give them away necessarily,” she says. “Because I felt like, ‘I have this business that's on the line.’”

In March, amid a global shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical and other frontline workers, local crafters rose to the occasion by creating and donating thousands of fabric masks from their home studios. Professional designers, fashion shops and local brands pitched in as well, but many found themselves increasingly stuck between a rock and a hard place: Give away masks for free and help keep the community alive — or keep their business alive.

“Charging people for masks felt funky initially,” says Wazhma Samizay of beloved Capitol Hill boutique Retail Therapy, which is selling masks from half a dozen local designers, including Samizay’s own brand, Bobojan. “A big part of what I was having a hard time with: I want to make money, but I also don't want to [take] advantage of people.”

But, she adds, “there’s this expectation that artists should always do things for free. That conversation for me has never felt comfortable. People's time and effort and energy into developing something should also be compensated.”

Wazhma Samizay of Capitol Hill boutique Retail Therapy sells masks by independent and local designers, including her own brand Bobojan. (Wazhma Samizay)

Wazhma Samizay of Capitol Hill boutique Retail Therapy sells masks by independent and local designers, including her own brand Bobojan. (Wazhma Samizay)

To Samizay, selling masks has been somewhat of a conflicting experience. Each mask helps keep more people safe. But every order is also another reminder that things are not normal — that the pandemic is far from over.

“I’ve been getting calls from teachers who are trying to prepare for the upcoming school year and are like: ‘Oh my God, I need something.’”

With their quirky patterns, it’s easy to see why Retail Therapy’s accordion-style double-layer cotton masks would appeal to anyone trying to keep the attention of kids. There’s a rainbow Darth Vader one (to make sure the force is with you). Another bears a motif featuring Frida Kahlo’s face (for some artistic flair). One is emblazoned with fierce yellow-eyed pink cats (a 2016 election-inspired pattern called “Nasty Kitties”).

The patterns may be whimsical, but to Samizay, making and selling masks is serious. “Masks do not replace or reduce the necessity to practice social distancing in the fight against COVID-19,” warns her online shop description for an organic cotton mask with pocket insert.

Not everyone puts safety front and center. Local designer Lisa Marie opted for a simple center-seam mask (and not a pleated version) purely because it was the “sleekest,” just like the bridal and evening dress collections she’s known for. Now that weddings and most large, fancy gatherings are canceled, Marie’s commissions have all but vanished, except for the few brides and grooms who want matching masks for photoshoots and very small gatherings, as well as the masks she makes to order.

“All of those masks have pretty much been custom — bedazzled, lace, beaded, brocade, silk,” Marie says. “None of them have been very practical. That's on purpose. People come to me because they want something fun.”

Local bridal and evening dress designer Lisa Marie brings the same sleek glamor to face masks she's known for in her other garments. (Lisa Marie)

Local bridal and evening dress designer Lisa Marie brings the same sleek glamor to face masks she's known for in her other garments. (Lisa Marie)

“I’ve been telling everyone: If they have specific things they need, please find it elsewhere,” she adds. “If you want filter inserts, if you need special nose fittings for your glasses, I’m not the person.” But she does have a sense of humor about it.

“All I can do is provide fashion relief,” Marie says.

Even for herself, the process has been somewhat of a relief. Financially and mentally. Marie’s been able to repurpose fabric lingering on rolls in her Capitol Hill studio. “It’s kind of like Marie Kondo-ing for me, but in a reverse way,” she says. “It’s very joyful.”

Similarly, local clothing brand Prairie Underground has repurposed some fabrics for masks in its characteristically no-nonsense style. Many of the striped, blue, charcoal and beige face coverings are made from hemp, organic cotton and chambray textiles the company has used in shirts and dresses before.

“In that way, our customers would immediately recognize this textile and know that they have a garment they could coordinate exactly it with, if that's their jam,” says Davora Lindner, co-founder and co-designer of the brand.

Many of Prairie Underground's face coverings are made from textiles the company has used in shirts and dresses before. (Mel Carter)

Many of Prairie Underground's face coverings are made from textiles the company has used in shirts and dresses before. (Mel Carter)

It’s one small silver lining for a brand that has had to rethink its offerings, collections, entire way of working and 2020 outlook in just a few weeks. Another: an expanded client pool. While Prairie Underground has focused on “nonconformist uniforms for cool working women,” as Lindner puts it, now a lot of longtime male fans are finally able to purchase something, she says. Plus, a mask is likely one of the company's most affordable designs ever. “To be able to buy something on our website at $28, it's the first time it's ever happened,” she says.

Customers don’t just want a piece of the brand, Lindner says — they also want to feel good about their purchase, about the local company or maker they’re supporting. A mask is “probably one of the few things that people feel good about buying right now,” Lindner says. “In a climate where there is so much obvious need, and when inequality is really being defined daily with a new civil rights movement … you pay attention to what it is that matters.”

Masks, of course, are no panacea. Not for the pandemic, nor for a struggling small business. But for now, the pivot to fashionable face coverings might help both designers and safety conscious customers pull through.

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