Covid Couture: SF’s Style Stars Make a Safety Statement

By Laura Compton

At left, Oakland-based Sonson creates limited-edition, 100 percent cotton masks. Designer Rashima Sonson says, “If you’re going to add something to adorn you, it might as well be beautiful.” At right, philanthropist and arts supporter Lisa Zabelle owns a growing collection of colorful masks by California designers. She sees them as fashion accessories and natural conversation starters.

With masks now mandatory, demand is increasing for high-quality, limited-edition and bespoke face coverings that protect — and project personality.

As the novel coronavirus nears the six-month mark, fashionable San Franciscans are finding ways to express themselves, while supporting and connecting with others in a time of isolation and uncertainty, through an unlikely avenue: the face mask.

Given their importance in the fight against COVID-19 and protecting ourselves and communities, it seems likely face coverings will be with us for the foreseeable future. Why shouldn’t they reflect the wearer’s personality, politics or preferences.

When the pandemic started spreading in March, demand was sky-high. Global retailers, including French luxury conglomerate Kering and American designers such as Christian Siriano, led the charge to start producing functional nonmedical masks, which were quickly mandated for the public to wear.

But fashion, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and it didn’t take long for flashier options to emerge. In May, Britain’s Daily Telegraph declared “the advent of the It mask,” and cited House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s sleek masks that match her jewel-toned power suits to demonstrate that “thoughtful coordination and mask curation is the current name of the game.” Logos, both legit and borrowed, abound in the dizzying world of options available on Etsy, Instagram and e-tail sites.

Joel Goodrich, who is known for his dapper blazer and pocket square ensembles at arts gala opening nights, was an early adopter. Because his industry was deemed essential, the top luxury real estate agent says there was barely a pause once the pandemic hit. Searching his Instagram feed — “I call it Instashopping,” he says — led to his first purchase. He seeks out colorful masks that coordinate with his collection of Pucci and Versace pocket squares. The makers vary; Milan’s fashion houses have yet to start marketing designer masks. Goodrich’s mask accessorizing has been a hit with clients. “Especially in these serious times, it’s nice to have something that’s a little lighthearted,” he says. “People get a kick out of it.” Lisa Zabelle, an arts supporter who’s involved with he San Francisco Opera Guild and Meals on Wheels, also began snapping up fun, fashionable masks to fulfill her love of fashion in the absence of social events and fundraisers she would normally be attending.

“I miss being able to smile at people in person since we all have these masks on, but I think a fun mask can be a form of a friendly smile and conversation starter on its own,” she says.

Her collection includes multiple masks from small businesses such as Vanessalynne, founded by Vanessalynne Hattar, an SF womenswear designer who makes colorful minimalist styles, and Misha Gibb, a Los Angeles seamstress battling cancer who has been marketing maximalist masks with designer logos — hashtag #slaysafe — on her Instagram account.

Zabelle touts their quality and designs through selfies posted on her own Instagram account, thus earning both women more customers. One might even call her a mask influencer.

Giving back, whether through supporting independent designers who donate masks to essential workers or donating proceeds to organizations supporting social justice or social service nonprofits, is one of the goals. A side benefit has been keeping local garment workers employed.

“We built a team of remote seamstresses who were able to have a source of income during shelter in place,” says Hattar, who started with her own home sewing machine before enlisting others. In collaboration with Eve Masks, Hattar has sold more than 5,000 masks and donated about 4,000.

While the pandemic has shuttered many businesses, it gave Oakland-based Sonson a new direction. Six years in, Rashima Sonson was on the verge of closing her bespoke bowtie business. She decided to use her fabric inventory to make and donate high-quality masks that were functional and easy to wear, as well as aesthetically pleasing. “I make sure whatever fabric I select is eye-catching — it’s either classic, or it’s a conversational piece,” she says.

Her followers responded so enthusiastically that she decided to pivot to a fast-fashion, digital model. Customers sign up for a weekly newsletter on the Sonson website and are notified about new limited-edition styles. Past releases have included sets pairing head wraps and bow ties with matching masks. Quantities range from 60 to 800, depending on how much fabric Sonson has obtained, so buyers are motivated to act fast. Certain styles have sold out within an hour.

“From my standpoint, if you’re going to wear a mask, just please let it be fashionable,” says Sonson, whose clients include Mayor London Breed. “At least get one that’s a statement piece. If you’re going to add something to adorn you, it might as well be beautiful.”

Goodrich sees masks as the newest accessory in a long lineage dating back to the days of when people dressed in hats and gloves to go downtown and shop in Union Square.“ We have the first new fashion accessory in 50 years,” he said. “And I never leave home without it.”

SF’s 1918 Call to Masks

When it comes to masks, it turns out the City That Knows How has been here before. During the 1918 flu pandemic, which would eventually kill 6,000 in the Bay Area, the Board of Supervisors imposed a mandatory order proclaiming the wearing of gauze, linen or other fabric masks a patriotic duty. The pandemic was declared defeated on November 21, 1918, but a second wave resurfaced in January. The order was reinstated, and  “mask slackers”  were fined $50 — including Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph. An anti-mask league infamously attempted to fight the order but imploded around the time it was lifted in early February.

About Face: Masks in the Wardrobe

Although not designed for medical use, these reusable fabric face masks feature thoughtful design touches such as breathable layers of cotton, comfortable closures, and pockets for wearers to add filters.

Flower power: Ready-to-wear designer Amy Kuschel’s eco-friendly masks are ready to transport you back to the Summer of Love with a Liberty London floral print, or to Cape Cod, with woven Japanese chambray. Three unisex sizes, $20–$25.

Make a statement: It’s all about the distinctive cotton fabrics sourced by Rashima Sonson, who creates limited-edition mask sets— and creative styles that often sell out their first day of release. Standard adult size, $10.50–$45.

Family favorite: SF’s Vanessalynne Designs partnered with family to start selling 15 understated mask options, including plain black, camouflage and cotton eyelet. One size fits most; custom orders available, $7–$15.

Pattern play: With choices ranging from plaid and patriotic prints to rainbow-bright solids and batik shades, Rickshaw Bags has covered all the bases with its triple-layer laser-cut cotton masks.Three sizes, $22.

True blue: A collaboration between Waris Singh Ahluwalia’s House of Waris and designer Philip Huang, sales of this hand-dyed indigo and silkscreened mask benefit the Bowery Mission, a hunger and homelessness nonprofit inNew York. Adult medium and large,$28.

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