They’ve become unexpectedly must-have accessories whether we like it or not: Face masks are now mandatory in Israel, punishable with a 200 shekel ($55) fine if they aren’t worn in public during the coronavirus pandemic.
The country’s offices, stores and streets have suddenly begun to resemble hospital operating rooms, with most people wearing standard surgical masks, interspersed with the occasional homemade cloth mask, mass-produced Lycra mask or improvised bandana.
Among the fashion conscious, though, demand for more stylish and cheerful forms of face protection has exploded – and several quick-thinking Israeli designers have filled that niche, offering masks that, on average, sell for between 69 to 199 shekels.
In her Jaffa studio, Swedish-born designer Kiki Almqvist has been busy producing her one-of-a-kind creations. Normally at this time of year, she would be busy creating wedding dresses and other special occasion gowns for clients who come in and out of her loft, which is filled with the casual-yet-elegant line of apparel she creates. Almqvist specializes in comfortable clothes in luxurious soft and silky fabrics.
For her, the paper masks she bought at the pharmacy at the outset of the outbreak immediately rubbed her the wrong way. “It gave me an allergic rash,” she relays. “A lot of people with sensitive skin aren’t able to wear them comfortably.”
So Almqvist took some of the elegant material from her designs and made silk-lined masks for herself. Her friends and customers wanted them as soon as they saw them.
“It’s so much nicer to have a piece of good fabric on your face than paper,” she explains. Initially, she says, she was inspired to create masks that match her best-selling item at the moment – silk kimonos, which she calls “the ultimate clothing for the coronavirus: They are comfortable to wear around the house, but you can throw on heels and go outside and still look elegant.”
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The silky and sequined masks “are an extension of my collection,” she says. “Masks are going to be with us for a long time, and I think it will be great to have an elegant-looking mask to wear to an important meeting or a special event that feels ‘dressed up.’”
Masking for a friend
Wedding gown designer Yarden Oz characterizes her new mask-making venture, Happy People, as a way of “making lemonade out of some very bitter lemons.”
She and her husband Shachaf work in some of the hardest-hit professions: He owns and operates a venue that specializes in bar- and bat-mitzvah parties – the Coliseum, in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion, where the couple lives. The special events industry was one of the first to fall victim to the coronavirus, with large gatherings banned; it is also expected to be one of the last to return to full operation.
“I love my work because I get to dress women on the happiest day of their lives,” says Oz, 28, explaining the name of her new venture. But when the coronavirus struck, nothing seemed happy anymore.
“Suddenly, my days were all about cancellations, fears and pain,” she recounts. “Some of my brides postponed their events, others downsized to small ceremonies and I had to replace their dress with something more modest that suited the occasion better.”
Oz made her first mask for her husband, after he was ordered into quarantine for two weeks. With no weddings to make dresses for, she invested the time to make a “stylish and fun” mask for him – because “let’s face it, hospital masks have a depressing connotation.”
While she was at it, she decided to make a matching mask for herself, and the couple posted photos on social media of themselves wearing the masks. Soon, people were contacting her, asking for masks as well – and the new venture was born.
She has transformed the empty Coliseum into an impromptu mask factory, and demand is such that she is working with 10 seamstresses outside the facility. Her most in-demand masks? Animal prints – leopard and zebra – and sequins.
Now, she says, “some of my brides and grooms are sending out announcements of their rescheduled weddings – ‘update the date’ notices – with a photo of them wearing my masks.”
Another newly branded mask vendor is Stav Ofman, a 2018 graduate of Shenkar College (one of Israel’s most prestigious design schools).
Ofman, 25, had been living and working in London for high-profile designers like Richard Quinn and Mary Katrantzou when the coronavirus first hit Europe.
“I had to go to work one day, felt like I needed a mask – but didn’t have one. My first instinct was to make my own,” she says. “I did, and wore it, then my co-workers immediately started asking me about my mask and wanted me to make some for them as well.”
She returned to Israel for a planned vacation over the Purim holiday, but “when it looked like things were getting very bad with the coronavirus,” she decided to stay.”
With the leftover fabrics from her Shenkar studies, Ofman began to use her free time to produce masks. “I created some crazy ones, which were one of a kind because I was using the scraps of leftover fabric. It started spreading by word of mouth among my friends here that I was making them – and I began getting requests.”
The website for Ofman’s Savvy Masks – which come in three sizes, is slick and high concept. Each mask model has a name – “The Elle,” “The Cheetah Girl,” “The Black Panther” – with some featuring camouflage, stars and high-end embroidered designs.
Now she is considering working on outfits to match the masks, or perhaps bathing suits. “A lot will depend on what the restrictions will be this summer,” she explains. “Where are people going to be allowed to go, and where will they be required to wear the masks?”
Like Oz and Almqvist, Ofman is selling her masks in central Israel or letting her customers pick them up from her. However, she soon hopes to be able to begin selling more widely – in London and other locations. Almqvist, who has established clientele in Sweden and the United States – she has been doing sales events via Zoom – has already sold masks overseas.
Angels and unicorns
Another designer, Rachel Aharami, has created a niche within a niche: specialty cloth masks for children. Aharami, 35, has not yet cleared out her design studio from her annual busy season – she custom-sews intricate Purim costumes for children – but it is now filled with masks.
In normal years, once Purim ends she transitions into making high-end dresses for young girls to wear as flower girls at weddings and bat mitzvahs.
“I love working with kids,” she says. “I like to see their smiles, and they really appreciate things that are special – it’s really rewarding.”
But in the coronavirus era, like other designers Aharami found herself without any customers for dresses, but bombarded with requests for masks like those she had crafted for her 4-year-old daughter, Talia.
“Demand has grown quickly, because the standard masks out there don’t really fit children’s faces – they’re just too big,” Aharami says. “I keep buying more material: I’m making between 60 and 90 each week, and I expect to make more.”
Aharami’s masks feature angels, rainbows, unicorns and hearts – and a line of bolder masks with comic prints.
In Israel, special education classes have restarted and children in day care, kindergarten and grades one through three are expected to return to their classrooms imminently.
“Now I have teachers getting ready to go back and they are coming to me for adult-sized masks in kid-friendly material that are pretty and fun, so the kids won’t feel scared or sad,” Aharami reports. “If you’re going to have to wear a mask – it might as well be cheerful.”