Kim Kardashian West's face masks provoke controversy

Morwenna Ferrier
Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The reality TV star Kim Kardashian West is the latest designer to capitalise on the coronavirus crisis by launching a line of face masks – and has sparked a race row in the process.

Launched over the weekend under the celebrity’s shapewear label, Skims, the non-medical seamless masks come in five skin tones and reportedly sold out in less than 30 minutes. There is now a waiting list for them.

But their runaway success came hand in hand with accusations of “casual racism”, according to some on social media, who pointed out that one of the masks was not the right nude shade for a black model. The Skims site has now changed the model and the mask she wears. Skims had not responded to the Guardian’s request for comment at time of publication.

Skims announced that it would donate 10,000 masks to various local relief charities in Los Angeles, where wearing a mask is mandatory if physical distancing is not possible. This public act of generosity has been widely reported, alongside news of sales.

A host of other fashion brands have responded to the coronavirus pandemic by rearranging their supply chains to manufacture masks and other pieces of personal protective equipment, in many cases not for profit. At the same time, some large profit-making companies have been accused of “coronawashing” or using the pandemic as a public relations vehicle. Others, such as ASOS and Boohoo, have faced criticism for profiteering from the crisis by making “fashion masks” in leopard and paisley prints that offer little or no proven protection.

The Skims masks cost $8 each, and are available in colours named sand, clay, sienna, cocoa and onyx. Given that the masks are “non-medical” – the website cautions that the mask is “not a respirator and will not eliminate the risk of contracting disease or infection” – wearing them would appear to be as much about style as pandemic precaution.

There is concern that should mask-wearing become mandatory, this line between necessity and fashion statement is going to blur, and this arm of the industry will get bigger. The masks currently sit under “accessory” on the shapewear label’s site.

It is not the first time Kardashian West’s brand has stoked racial controversy. Skims was originally launched in 2019 as Kimono, a name that drew criticism for its appropriation of Japanese culture, with the mayor of Kyoto, Daisaku Kadokawa, writing an open letter to Kardashian-West requesting that the word kimono should “not be monopolized[sic]”, and asking her to reconsider the brand’s name, which she duly did.