Uncovering Innovation

Uncovering Innovation Photo

Even as a coronavirus vaccine hits the market, face masks clearly will remain part of most people’s wardrobes for the near future. According to a mid-year report by Arizton, the market could hit US$20 billion by 2025.  Those kinds of numbers have spawned a slew of new development projects—with each organization putting its own spin on the wardrobe mainstay.

High-end fashion brands are aiming to combine style with safety, along with a dash of philanthropy—keenly aware of the risk they could be seen as profiting from the crisis or glamorizing it. After repurposing its Yorkshire trench coat factory to produce non-surgical gowns and masks for patients in U.K. hospitals, Burberry announced a £90 mask in two colorways of its signature plaid last August. The masks are said to be enhanced with “an antimicrobial technology.” Fashion-forward favorite The Vampire’s Wife leans more deeply into style, dropping cotton and silk versions with matching drawstring bags. The combo packs proved so popular that they were known to sell out minutes after they dropped. Ralph Lauren followed months of producing masks and gowns for frontline workers by announcing in September, it was rolling out two lines of masks for consumers. The first, currently on the market, features an inner lining of antimicrobial-treated cotton, along with two layers of nonwoven filtration and an outer layer. The other one is described as a “high-filtration” mask that comes with replaceable filters, but that project has hit delays, with the line’s debut pushed back to hit in early 2021. And while all three companies are promising a portion of the sales to go to charity, the projects still make a powerful brand statement.

The big athleisure names jumped into action, too, but went after a different selling point: performance. In June, Under Armour rolled out its UA Sportsmask, which landed at number 2 on PMI’s 2020 list of top 10 most influential consumer products goods. Once the coronavirus hit, the U.S. sportswear giant immediately began building project prototypes specifically designed for athletes and fitness buffs. The resulting US$30 water-resistant mask features an antimicrobial layer and “Iso-Chill” fabric to keep skin cool. The first batch sold out in less than an hour and it took months for the company to catch up to demand.

The competition was—and remains—fierce: In April, German designer Saskia Diez launched a line of lightweight cotton masks with metal or nylon chains, allowing them to be worn like a necklace when users didn’t need to be covered. But even this simple stylized addition didn’t come without controversy. As other designers raced to put their own sartorial twists on face masks, the chain detail appeared in other product launches. Retailer We Wore What was accused of copying a design by Second Wind’s, which, in turn, bears similarity to Diez’s work. Second Wind launched its mask collection featuring the glasses chains in June, while We Wore What launched its line in July—after contacting We Wore What about obtaining a mask.

Power of Partners

As fashion peers raced to fill the demand for face coverings in the early months of the pandemic, designer Cynthia Sakai noticed a problem: Some seemed to prioritize aesthetics over function.

“The masks that fashion brands created are really cute and fashionable, but we’re not wearing masks for fashion,” says Sakai, founder of luxury jewelry brand Vita Fede, New York, New York, USA. “We’re wearing them to protect.”

So Sakai launched a project to develop her own line of masks that promise to deliver 98 percent bacterial filtration efficiency without skimping on style. In creating Evolvetogether, she reimagined the standard blue medical masks by producing them in custom, fashion-friendly colors like black and dark green, and using a softer nonwoven fabric that increased comfort and reduced cost.

“The blue masks are so scratchy, and they tug at your ears,” Sakai says. “We wanted something consumers would want to wear every day.”

Since unveiling the masks in May, she’s racked up sales of 10 million.

Sakai credits that success, at least in part, to working with a business contact in Hong Kong whose family owns a PPE factory. That partnership allowed her to spend less time on R&D and focus instead on quickly scaling up production. It also helped her to develop a framework for approval and testing so she could adjust designs without major delays.

That kind of collaboration helping spark even more breakthrough designs.

MIT’s Pandemic Response CoLab launched an open, online platform that allows individuals and organizations to submit project ideas to help solve problems created by COVID-19. In November, the lab revealed the winners for face coverings, including a project by Burzo Ciprian of Romania that delivered a concept mask that pairs with a mobile app to sense proximity to other people and detect the possibility of viral transmission. Another CoLab project is taking face coverings to a new level of positive social impact: Aditi Chadha of India designed a mask that’s adjustable for people wearing turbans and hearing devices—and it’s already being made at a factory that trains and employs female tailors.

Ready to Adapt

For some teams, the project to develop a mask design requires a longer and more deliberate journey. Weeks after the pandemic took hold in the United States, engineer and inventor Rafael Correa began working with his son, Rafael Correa Jr., to develop a face shield with a built-in thermometer that would rest on the wearer’s forehead to display a constant body temperature check unaffected by outside temperatures. Each component required research, testing and iteration.

“The first and foremost challenge we had to overcome was finding a thermometer that would make good contact with the forehead of the user,” says Correa Jr., who launched the startup Reciprotect with his father in  Ocean City, Maryland, USA. “Almost every face shield out there uses a rigid structure to support the shield, so it doesn’t adapt to the specific user’s head.”

The Reciprotect team paired a reusable liquid crystal thermometer with a skin-safe plastic that could adapt to each user’s head shape to provide effective temperature tracking as well as comfort. The team then used 3D printers to prototype and refine the shape of the plastic shield. The design also allows users to easily lift the shield to put on glasses or take a bite of food without removing the entire face covering.

“We didn’t want to create another variety of the chin diaper,” says Correa Jr., referring to the common practice of people wearing cloth masks slung below their chin. “That pivot function was key to keep the temperature read constant.”

Months after they completed the project, the masks hit the market in September, with production slated at 100,000 units per month. 

“The best thing you can do when creating a new product or feature like this is leverage smart sourcing and reliable partners,” Correa Jr. says. — A. Wilkinson