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The Streetwear Face Mask Market Is Booming

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control advised that all Americans should wear face masks when they go outside in order to limit the spread of coronavirus. Which means that millions of people who spent the last few weeks worrying more about toilet paper supplies than face masks face the same question: where, exactly, are you supposed to get one? Given that there’s a dire shortage of masks for frontline health workers, the obvious answers are off the table. Amazon is limiting medical mask sales to hospitals. Hardware store shelves have long been cleaned out by the prepper-inclined. There are plenty of mask patterns floating around out there for the D.I.Y. crowd, but they require fabric and sewing supplies. I was ready to roll up to the grocery store outlaw-style, with a bandana wrapped around my face—until I read that, according to experts, bandanas are among the least-effective types of face covering.

So I turned to the place I go when I’m trying to hunt down a rare item of clothing that I can’t find anywhere else: fashion and streetwear resale site Grailed.

In response to the face mask shortage in hospitals, fashion brands and clothing manufacturers have attempted to help fill the gap using their existing manufacturing capabilities. (And have run into significant hurdles along the way.) The masks on Grailed are… not those. For years, streetwear brands like Bape and Off-White have made ornamental face masks. Even a few months ago, a hypebeast could buy a Bape camo mask-cap on the brand’s site, or a selection of simple Off-White masks covered in Virgil Abloh’s signature diagonal stripes on SSENSE.

These masks have mostly been popular in Asian streetwear markets, a signature of street style flicks and Instagram fit pics from Bangkok to Tokyo. Now, a more global market appears to be forming. As of Thursday evening, Grailed had dozens of listings for new face masks by Bape, Off-White, Heron Preston, and (who can relate?) Anti Social Social Club, all of which were out of stock on the brands’ respective e-commerce sites. In addition, dozens of mask creations by Grailed’s small but prolific DIY community appeared to have hit the site within the past week. One user, who generally deals in vintage Versace and Fendi goods, told me he sold several custom masks made using castoff designer fabrics—like bootleg versions of Billie Eilish’s Gucci mask—this week.

I was not the only one who turned to Grailed for a mask. According to the site, daily search volume for face masks has doubled, with a particular spike on March 12, the day the NBA suspended its season and Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive for the virus. Since Tuesday, streetwear marketplace StockX has sold hundreds of face masks, according to data listed on the site.

It should be noted that these are not medical-grade gear; experts caution that nonmedical face masks should not embolden wearers to ignore social distancing, and that they could lead to a false sense of security. But a Cambridge study from 2013 showed that cotton masks can “significantly reduce” viral spread. (The study found that surgical masks are 3 times as effective as cotton ones.) Though it’s only one factor among many, Asian countries where mask usage is a sign of civic responsibility have been among the most successful in containing the spread of coronavirus.

The irony is not lost on some that the streetwear mask, an extremely corny byproduct of streetwear’s relentless and often absurd accessorizing, is now practically prophetic. “In any streetwear meme, if the point is to make fun of your prototypical hypebeast, that guy is wearing a mask that matches their hoodie,” said Grailed brand director Lawrence Schlossman. “It’s funny how now that this is top of mind for a global population, this is the one thing the global streetwear community was ahead of the curve on.”

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