The phone at Cambridge Mask Co began ringing more towards the end of January. At first it was only a slight increase – business was already up after the Australian bushfires. Then, things started to escalate.
"Since China began locking down, there's been 20-30 times the demand for our masks," says Christopher Dobbing, the company's founder and CEO. "There are only a few of us in a small office and we're currently receiving more than a thousand calls a day." It's been, he admits, "completely overwhelming."
Video: How to Make Face Masks
Along with dry hands, pasta shortages, video calls, coronavirus memes and cabin fever, surgical masks have become an indelible part of daily life under lockdown; a symbol of panic and precaution. Cambridge Mask Co was founded by Dobbing in 2015, after he returned from teaching in China. "I noticed how much of an issue air pollution was over there. Children would colour the sky grey instead of blue. Having grown up in the countryside in England, I was really appalled and wanted to do something about it."
The masks, which range in price from £9.95 for the N95 Basic to £24.95 for the the N99 Churchill Pro – a Metal Gear Solid-looking all-black affair – are sold out until June. Most masks sell direct to consumers, but the company has contracts with British Airways, Deliveroo, the Mayo Clinic, the Nepalese police department and many hospitals and embassies across Asia. "We have a global consumer exclusive on a technology developed by the British military for chemical and nuclear biological warfare protection," says Dobbing. "Our masks filter gases, particulates, but also viruses. They're treated with silver, which enhances the antiviral properties and remove 99.6 per cent of viruses."
And the coronavirus?
"Yes. We've worked with National Laboratories in the US, which is an FDA-approved facility. They tested the masks and found a 99.6 percent average viral filter efficiency – as long as they're fitted properly."
As the coronavirus shifted from distant news item, to something nervously gossiped about in the office, the pub and on the front row of fashion shows, where Chanel and others handed out their own designer versions to attendees, masks began to feel less like a hypochondriac or fashion victim's affectation, and more like a necessity for our near-future. Stories soon appeared of NHS workers running out of masks and untested equipment being dispatched to hospitals. Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted that there had been "challenges" with the supply of personal protective equipment for medical staff, including a nationwide shortage of masks.
This level of demand has also led to multiple cases of price gouging, one of the darker elements of human nature on display during the pandemic, with shoppers racing to bulk buy, either to create a personal stockpile, or to flip for profit later on. Amazon recently kicked 3,900 sellers off its platform for ramping prices up on items like hand sanitiser and masks. "We have deployed a dedicated team that's working continuously to identify and investigate unfairly priced products that are now in high demand, such as protective masks and hand sanitiser," the company wrote in a blog post.
"It's very easy to make a bad mask. It's very difficult to make a good one," says Dobbing. "There are a whole battery of tests across multiple continents that you need to pass. We've got customers with very serious respiratory issues who are in desperate need, but for us the only fair way is to be first come, first served.
"I think, in the future, we'll see people have masks prepared in their homes, even if there's no direct threat. I was talking to someone from the Czech Republic this morning and you're not allowed out of the house there without a mask on. We're working very hard to make as many as we can, as quickly as we can, but of course we have to preserve the very high quality standards that we maintain."
As global infrastructure creaks beneath the weight and unique demands of the virus, some of the most powerful luxury conglomerates in fashion have committed to acts of mass philanthropy. Kering has promised to donate three million surgical masks to health services in France, while Kering-owned Gucci is making more than one million masks and 55,000 pairs of medical overalls in Italy. LVMH is donating 40 million masks to France and its cosmetics division is busy creating hand sanitiser for medical use. Prada has committed to providing 110,000 face masks and 80,000 medical overalls by 6 April.
Even in the midst of mass health anxiety, celebrity influence is never far from view. Gwyneth Paltrow has become, in recent weeks, the poster girl for chic self-preservation. One recent Instagram post features the actress and Goop guru, fresh from an LA farmers' market, in a low-key all-black outfit, trainers, surgical gloves and a sleek, black mask from the Swedish brand Airinum, which market its wares as "Next generation health accessories" — dress-down for the dystopia. The company's Urban Air Mask 2.0, which retails for £58, is currently out of stock for an indefinite amount of time. Its Instagram page features couples in small sunglasses, trendy haircuts and matching black pollution masks under the tagline "empowering individuals to breathe clean air."
Airinum's brand story mirrors that of Cambridge Mask Co. Its founder, a tall blonde Swede who goes by Alexander, started the company after moving to India and seeing firsthand the level of air pollution. "Realising that everyone can’t breathe clean and healthy air they decided to do something about it, and Airinum was born," the company mission, posted to its website, reads. "I've been on their waiting list for ages!" a friend tells me when I mention the name.
As the fashion journalist Vanessa Friedman wrote in a recent New York Times article about the cultural significance of masks. "When history looks back on the pandemic of 2020, those white or baby blue rectangles that hide the mouth and nose, turning everyone into a muzzled pelican, will be what we see."
On the other end of the line, Christopher Dobbing sounds exhausted. There was a recent meeting with the Indonesian embassy and a host of other big clients, and the phone keeps ringing. "In other circumstances, I'd send you a mask to try, but – you understand." I do. "I've spent the last five years banging on about masks and people never really paid attention. Let's just say that, with this all kicking off, everyone I've given a business card to in the last few years has called me."
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