Like every major event in the history that pushes humans to think in new directions and embrace a new world order, the coronavirus pandemic has brought with it a new playbook for how people live their daily lives.
Let's take dressing up for instance. Leaving home for work or an important engagement, or even a grocery run, now involves an important safety (sartorial?) addition: the face mask. In the five months after the pandemic hit Indians, we seem to have adapted to this change quite well.
The diversity one sees in the masks people wear tells this tale -- from a surgical three-ply mask which one uses once and throws away, to N95 respirators, so impractical for daily use that if your walk gathers pace towards a sprint, you'll have to take it off to breathe, to face covers made out of handkerchiefs and scarves, to masks made out of nothing but pure gold, for some who like to make a statement.
In terms of utility value, all of the above do their job. As medical practitioners reiterate time and again that masks, social-distancing, and frequent hand-washing have to form our defense against the virus for long as one can see, it is clear that face covers are a critical safety gear.
But can an item that you wear daily -- one which makes contact with every person you meet and quite literally expresses your presence to whoever you meet -- be relegated only to the category of medical equipment? Or can it be viewed as an essential wardrobe item, an accessory that one can pick and choose, much like the clothes one wears?
"The T-shirt of tomorrow"
For luxury resort wear designers Shivan & Narresh, the answer is obvious. "The pandemic is here to stay, and the mask of today is going to be the T-shirt of tomorrow. It is going to co-exist at all price brackets, from high street to bridge to luxury to super-luxury. So there should be no surprise that just like you find a T-shirt from Rs 200 to Rs 20,000, you'll find a mask from Rs 50 to Rs 20,000," Narresh Kukreja told CNBC-TV18 when asked about their range of designer luxury masks, which range from Rs 2,000 for a basic cloth mask with a signature pin to Rs 20,000 for the bespoke high-end Swarovski studded masks.
The vast majority of their masks, however, fall in the Rs 3,000-Rs 8,000 price bracket and consist of their signature print designs and skein work.
"International brands are already doing this (making masks). If a domestic consumer today is buying an Off-White mask or a Gucci mask, why shouldn't India have its own luxury brand which is selling the same category, why should that business only be absorbed by international luxury brands?" Narresh says.
The decision to start making masks for Shivan & Narresh was driven primarily by the need to keep their business running during the lockdown months when luxury shopping was down to almost nil.
"We faced the heat of the lockdown in two months when no buying was taking place. So I decided to make masks and PPE kits... Our clients would call us asking for masks. So I decided to pick up on this demand, which at that point seemed only to be for masks," Shivan Bhatiya said.
Interestingly, the tier-two and tier-three cities in India are looking to make a statement just as keenly as their city counterparts. "We've mostly been selling these masks online. Our customers in cities like Gorakhpur, Raipur, Nagpur, Coimbatore are placing orders online," according to Shivan.
The demand is, quite clearly, aspirational.
The economic argument to making luxury masks
There is also a huge economic upside for luxury labels to produce face masks.
"Not only is it sustainable for brands during lockdown to use fabrics that they may not have been using or even use a lot of cut pieces in designer goods which essentially end up going into waste", Narresh explains, the activity also enabled them to keep their tailors, embroiderers, and artisans in employment.
Shivan and Narresh say sustaining a business in these times means pivoting to categories where there is demand. The designers are definitely not alone in that thought -- during the lockdown months, a large number of entrepreneurs and industrial set-ups pivoted their production lines to manufacture masks and other protective equipment required to combat the pandemic.
This agility had a two-fold benefit: While the production capacity helped quickly turn around this critical gear, it also kept business ticking for many non-essential businesses that would have otherwise had to shut shop entirely.
For Shivan and Narresh as well, with a sale of 800 masks including some wholesale orders, the numbers are just enough to sustainably run the production of the masks.
To be sure, the masks made by them also complement their existing lines of resort wear and loungewear.
For many standalone designer stores and retail apparel chains, selling masks has been a way to adapt to customer demand and pull buyers into showrooms, in the absence of demand for other categories. Apparel stores can be found selling printed cotton 3-ply masks anywhere in the range of Rs 100-Rs 200 apiece, and many others are designing elaborate patterns for wedding wear and celebrations which are now starting to take place after months of being deferred.
Capitalising on a crisis?
However, when masks come with price tags running into thousands of rupees, a backlash is likely. Some sections of consumers feel indulgent designer masks capitalise on a tragedy, and are opportunistic avenues for profit-making.
When Shivan and Narresh first announced their line of masks, they were also met with resistance from some quarters which found their masks as sending out the wrong message. A lot of that criticism, the two said, since quietened down as more and more designers came forward with their own lines and the idea of luxury masks became less alien.
Designing and expanding new categories is intrinsic to the creative process. The skepticism around whether or not it capitalises on a crisis depends on how one chooses to see the move forward in a world where the pandemic, even by conservative estimates, is going to stay for the remainder of the year.
One can choose to view it as a natural evolution of a category where customers can choose what they choose what (and how much) they want to spend on, or a capitalist opportunity.
In both cases, masks are going to stay, and the buyer will be spoilt for options - depending on how much they have to spend.
First Published: IST