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Face masks. They’re the latest trend. The biggest fashion must have. Everyone’s wearing them, right?

When the Covid-19 epidemic first started to look like it might turn into a global pandemic, people panicked. Americans rushed to buy N-95 respirator masking in bulk, hoarding them for themselves and keeping them away from the medical professionals that needed them most. Because of this, The World Health Organization advised against using face masks in an effort to conserve them for medical professionals and those that are already sick.

As the virus spread throughout the United States, however, state governments, the President, and even the CDC have now advised that Americans start wearing masks or other forms of cloth face coverings when going out in public. In places like New York, wearing something over your mouth and nose is actually mandatory. Because of this, people have gotten creative. On YouTube, you can easily find dozens of tutorials about how to make a face covering out of items you already have at home like old fabric, bandanas, and even bras. Thankfully, it seems like regular civilians buying and hoarding medical grade masks isn’t happening as much anymore. But, as it’s becoming more clear that some sort of face covering is essential when going into the outside world, a new issue is surfacing: fast fashion companies are capitalizing off of the Coronavirus.

The Fashion Industry Comes To The Rescue

In the midst of the pandemic, dozens of well-known fashion companies from Prada to Ralph Lauren to The Gap have started making masks. Zara Stone examined this growing phenomenon in an article on the Medium-based business publication, Marker. Christian Sirano was one of the first to make headlines on the topic, as he and his team of sewers began to make crucial PPE for medical workers in New York City. In the first week of making PPE, they created 2,000 masks that were delivered directly to the Javits Center temporary field hospital. The masks made by Sirano, and many other fashion companies that have stepped up to the plate to create PPE are not N-95 masks. These more-so resemble cloth surgical masks, meaning that while they do keep out droplets and particles to a certain extent, they are not as effective as the respirator masks. Still, what Sirano and thousands of other companies and volunteers across the country are doing is great. And as Stone noted in the expose on Marker, most of these fashion houses don’t seem to be making PPE as a publicity stunt, they’re likely just trying to do what they can to help during this global health crisis.

As of right now, Hanes, Lilly Pulitzer, Nordstrom, and more are not making masks and scrubs that are being sold to the general public, but that go directly to frontline workers. While this does get them a boost of good publicity, Stone argues that the real motive behind it is likely because by doing this, they get to remain open as an “essential” service. Companies that offer to make masks and PPE can submit proposals to the government that can help them get the funding to continue production. This means that by making PPE for hospitals, they get to pay rent and continue to pay their workers. It’s a win, win, win, win. Fashion houses get to keep operating, hospitals and care facilities get the protective gear they deserve, workers keep getting paid.

An Unstoppable Trend

With all these companies operating to provide gear for healthcare workers, there are just as many fast fashion companies ready to capitalize off of the pandemic. Of course, there are levels to profiting off of a pandemic. For example, Etsy has seen a skyrocket in masks being sold and purchased on their site. The great thing about Etsy, however, is that everything on the site is handmade by artists and creatives. If you have the means to do it, buying a mask from someone on Etsy is actually a great idea--you’ll be getting the face-covering you need to go out to the grocery store and you’ll be supporting an artist who may have even lost their source of income due to the pandemic. Then there’s companies like Alice and Olivia and Yuphoria Festival Wear. A handful of companies are doing what these two are, creating protective cloth masks that are available for purchase at a reasonable price for the general public, but donating a mask or two to frontline workers with each purchase. Founded by former scandal-ridden American Apparel founder, Los Angeles Apparel is selling packs of masks the purchase of which they claim helps fund their ability to continue paying workers and donating to medical professionals.

As the weeks go on, however, it seems that more and more fashion companies are beginning to design and sell face masks, getting ready to sell them to anyone who will buy them and in turn capitalizing off of Covid-19. Within just the past few days, you may have noticed that your Instagram and Facebook have become flooded with ads for face masks, from Zazzle to Brave New Look. From waterproof masks to sustainable masks to mommy and me masks for you and your kid. Lucky Brand is even making tendy denim mask packs. This trend is spreading and it’s spreading fast. Some bands such as My Chemical Romance have even started selling masks so that you can rep their music and stay safe from Covid-19 (although, they have pledged the proceeds towards those who have lost their jobs in the music industry due to the pandemic).

While most of these brands have good intentions, and some of them are making an effort to donate proceeds to first responders, it has never been so blatantly clear that companies will rush towards any way they can see to make a profit. It’s almost as if face masks are just the latest fashion trend. Vogue and Cosmopolitan have dedicated entire listicles to where you can find the most stylish masks online. Of course, we can’t blame anyone for wanting to support a business they like, a band, an artist and protect themselves from this virus all at the same time. But, perhaps who needs to be held the most accountable is the fast fashion industry. Notorious for maintaining factories with unhumane pay and work conditions, using unsustainable practices and materials, and jumping on passing trends just to make a quick buck, hopping on the face mask bandwagon for these companies was just too easy.

Fast Fashion: The Biggest Culprit

Boohoo, one of the online fashion fashion giants, made headlines this week when they actually removed their $5 face masks from their website. With slogans across the front of the masks like “if you can read this, you’re too close,” and “Eat, sleep, isolate, repeat,” many were disappointed, but not necessarily surprised, that Boohoo was so quick to try and make a profit off the pandemic. One nurse from Manchester, England stated on the topic: “It's disgusting that they are trying to cash in on the crisis especially when so many NHS staff don't have enough PPE.”

“Selling fashion clothing is not essential in a period of national emergency, but selling items that look like essential equipment is downright scandalous," the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers general secretary Paddy Lillis added. Do we commend Boohoo for recognizing that they made a mistake and pulling the masks from sale? Probably not, but there are other fast fashion giants that have yet to do the same. The company that stands out in particular as of late? Fashion Nova.

The fast fashion brand recently released a line of cloth face masks ranging from about $5 to $15 each. On the website, you can see the wide variety of masks they offer, each one paired with a super trendy outfit that you can buy to go with your super trendy mask. As if we’re going clubbing or out on the town with the girls anytime in the near future. The masks have sold out quickly, and you can be sure that they’ll have many more fashionable face masks up on the site soon enough. While many noticed that Fashion Nova was capitalizing off of the Coronavirus on Twitter last week, the scandal didn’t stop there.

Late last week, people across the country began to receive their stimulus checks. So what did Fashion Nova do? They sent out a mass text urging people to go on their website and buy, buy, buy. "When That Stimulus Deposit Hits ... Save Up To 80% OFF SITEWIDE. Use Code: STAYIN*). Shop ASAP,” the text read. Folks were quick to jump on Twitter and criticize the brand, noting that their stimulus checks would be used to pay bills, buy essential items, feed their kids, not buy a camouflage face mask, sunnies and khaki green shorts to match.

Fashion Nova is notorious for jumping on trends quickly in order to sell their products. As some have noted, “the devil works, but Fashion Nova works harder.” It seems that the second a celebrity wears a garment, whether it be streetwear or on the red carpet, Fashion Nova has an identical item ready to sell to customers often times what feels like only hours later. It’s no surprise that they would hop on the mask trend, and that they would be ready to lure people into their site using the idea of stimulus checks as a marketing strategy.

Not only is Fashion Nova notorious for hopping on trends in record time, but they’re notorious for horrendously underpaying their factory workers. An exposé came out in The Cut this past December citing a Department of Labor investigation conducted against the company in 2016 that found their Los Angeles-based workforce was paid as little as $2.77 an hour. The investigation found that many workers at Fashion Nova's factories were paid as little as possible and under the table. One worker noted that the factory was full of rats and cockroaches, and that she only made about $270 for 60 hours of work a week.

Now, Fashion Nova has shifted more than half of its supply chain overseas, with only a fraction of manufacturing still being conducted in Los Angeles factories. Of course, nobody is completely evil, right? Fashion Nova recently teamed up with Cardi B to donate “$1,000 an hour” resulting in a total of $1 million to various individuals with Fashion Nova Cares. Right now, the Fashion Nova website says there are 230 individual relief recipients across the U.S. Still, participating in the buying and selling of a global pandemic from a company that still likely grossly underpays its factory workers doesn’t sit right with many people.

The lesson here? Never underestimate the ability of some companies to make money off the suffering of others in our advanced capitalist system.

 Image via Pixabay

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Hi! I'm Aliza, a Creative Writing BFA student and an intern here at BUST Magazine. When I'm not writing, reading or scrolling through TikTok for hours on end, you can probably find me consuming copious amounts of iced coffee or doing something witchy. Follow me on Twitter @alizapelto for writing shenanigans and memes.

Currently Streaming: Smooth by Santana ft. Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20. Always. 

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