When Sonia Smith-Kang heard about the shortage of protective face masks, the news hit pretty close to home. The former critical care nurse turned fashion designer is married to a physician working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, and she felt compelled to do something.
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So Smith-Kang, the founder of children's apparel brand Mixed Up Clothing, decided to combine her style and medical expertise to start selling fabric face masks. She also began donating one mask to health care workers for each one she sold.
"I felt like I was in a unique position to do something to help," she told TODAY Style. "As someone who has worn masks before, I knew how they felt and what was needed."
Making CDC-approved masks was important to the designer, but she also wanted to give them some personality, so she used her brand's signature vibrant fabrics. "Masks are the first thing others see when face-to-face (at a safe distance, of course) so why not be something you are happy to wear, represents who you are and instills a sense of comfort and pride?" she said.
Smith-Kang's colorful patterns are just one example of how people are using their face masks to express themselves during these difficult times.
Caregiver Criselle Mesa has also tapped into her creative side to help break up the monotony of wearing a mask. The mother of two sells crafts online and recently began producing crocheted masks in playful designs for kids.
"Kids probably don’t want to walk around with a mask on their face, so why not make them fun? And, honestly, for adults too," she said.
Mesa's 7-year-old son, Rocco, has been requesting Pokemon masks and is always happy to model his mom's fun creations. "He wears them when we go on our walks and I can tell people, who are 6 feet away, get a kick out of them," she said.
Mesa has been creating lots of bear masks lately, and is also working on Disney and Harry Potter designs. As with many homemade mask makers, she recommends that people use a filter for added protection.
"I create two layers to the mask where your preferred filter can be inserted. Just by design, crochet stitches are not going to keep any germs out so it is necessary to place a filter in," she said.
Online retailer MaskClub recently started selling designs featuring popular logos, like Transformers, Hello Kitty, NASA and more. The two-ply cloth face coverings are CDC-compliant and the company donates a medical-grade mask to First Responders Children’s Foundation for every mask purchase.
"We knew we needed to help in some way and we knew that the brands my company, Trevco, works with have a huge influence and fan base," MaskClub founder Trevor George said. "In America, we thrive on individualism and self-expression. Rather than walking around wearing the same blue medical mask, we thought, 'Why don’t we show a little bit about who we are?'"
A Wonder Woman face mask is currently the site's best selling design, and George isn't surprised at all: "Maybe they are gifts for first responders or nurses, we aren’t sure. But this is a great design to express your inner warrior, because those on the front lines are warriors and we should honor them as such."
As more Americans look to decorative face masks to boost their mood in these trying times, many crafters are seeing a high demand for their creative handiwork. Laura Howe, founder of clothing brand Matrushka, said she's had so many orders lately that she had to hire part-time employees to help sew.
"Colorful masks can help bring a bit of joy into people's lives at a depressing and frightening time, while also reminding them not to touch their faces and to maintain social distancing," she said.
Matrushka masks are double-sided and reversible, so you can rock a few different looks. For each mask sold, the brand creates masks to donate to organizations in need.
Over on Etsy, "face mask" was the most frequently searched term over the past two weeks.
"Over the weekend of April 4-6, shoppers searched for face masks on Etsy an average of nine times per second (over two million searches)," Etsy trend expert Dayna Isom said. "As shoppers continue to search for face masks and it becomes an everyday essential, they are expressing their personal style and personality through the colors, patterns and prints that they choose."
Leanne Wyatt, owner of the Etsy shop TheBurlapCottage, has seen a 2600% increase in traffic (yes, that number is correct) to her shop in recent weeks after she began selling vibrant masks.
"Since the mouth is covered, next to smiling, a great way to bring a little happiness to others is through creative expression. My masks provide a way for people to do that. Also, because they are reversible with a different coordinating fabric, it is almost like having two masks for an entirely different look," she said.
As we await a viable coronavirus vaccine, many Americans plan on wearing protective face masks for the foreseeable future. It's something that will take some getting used to, but mask makers are hoping to provide a bit of comfort during these difficult times.
"Fashion is part of our identity and now masks are presenting a fun way to represent who we are," Smith-Kang said.