Essa Walla
Essa Walla's mask

Dubai: It looks like face masks will be a big part of our foreseeable future. At first, when they were enforced, many people considered them difficult to wear. They are uncomfortable, itchy and a completely new concept to us all. Masks are generally associated with negative things, like respiratory problems, going into surgery, seeing the dentist and even the plague. Unless it’s Halloween or a masquerade ball, we don’t associate them with something good. But, three months later, they’ve become part of our lives. A habit and a social construct.

As a result, Dubai fashion designers took on the task to make them as beautiful as possible. Masks can now be seen as an expression of self-identity. We’ve even seen people wear masks not just for everyday use but also for functions and events.

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UAE designers capitalise on the movement

Essa Walla, the Indian born, Dubai based, fashion designer, is one of the most recognizable names in the region. He has dressed celebs like Lady Gaga and Sonam Kapoor and has recently started creating a line of designer face masks. “If I hadn’t started making masks right now, my business would be struggling,” he told Gulf News. “They are currently my bread and butter.”

The thing about fashion is that designers plan their collections, months and even years in advance. This global pandemic brought with it the element of surprise. “I don’t think I was inspired to create masks, I think it was a necessity. The idea fell into my lap by default, due to the surreal situation that we are now living in.”

Need creates want, which creates demand

“I started hearing that people found masks uncomfortable and relatively depressing, so I decided to make a few. Nothing serious. Just used some of my fabrics to create a few colourful pieces. One day a friend of mine came over and saw them. She told me that she loved them and decided to take some of them home. She started wearing them and getting loads of questions. Then I posted a few on social media and my inbox exploded with people messaging me asking about masks. Clearly, there was demand. It wasn’t planning ahead like we normally do in fashion. It wasn’t a premeditated situation. This was a here and now. So I started to design the pieces.”

Essa’s collection includes bright neon designs, Renaissance painting prints, metal detailing, and unique fabrics. If you scoff at the idea of designer masks, then you may not truly understand the Dubai audience. The real situation is that fashion and beauty is so accessible here. You can get your nails, hair and eyebrows done for less than Dh100. Fashion labels here range from a Dh20 top to Dh2,000 one, so looking good is easy, accessible and possible for people to take care of their looks and care about looking good.

“Here is the real situation at hand. We live in Dubai. I think it’s one of the most fashion orientated, label driven countries in the world. And if they can’t afford to buy it, they look and they appreciate the brands. There is a huge focus on aesthetic in this city. People in Dubai, of every stratum, make an effort when they leave the house. In my experience as a designer, Fashion is so important here. Fashionable masks were just the next natural step. Hopefully, we will not need them forever, but at least for now, it is keeping myself and my team of tailers sustained throughout this.”

Essa Walla’s maks line has been such a success that he is now collaborating with bigger brands to sell his creations. “I have a few collaborations coming out that will be announced in August,” Essa tells Gulf News.

Another local brand formed because of COVID-19. Dubai residents Vikyath Poojary and Kevin Alexander collaborated to start the brand MaskIt, a trendy collection targeting the younger population. Their designs are funky and fashionable with quirky names like the Thug Bandana, Dream the Catch and Doodle-licious. Their business started as a response to the pandemic. “The pandemic is causing the usage of plastic to increase and as a result could seriously harm the environment,” Kevin Alexander told Gulf News.

“In addition to the plastic used in surgical masks, gloves and other protective equipment for healthcare workers, single-use plastic on all other fronts has increased as well. So we wanted to take a step towards reducing the negative impact that these masks have on the environment while also keeping ourselves safe as well. Hence the idea to start this brand. We started seeing people making handmade cotton masks. So we decided to create our own. Our masks are of high quality as they are FDA approved and CE certified,” he said.

“It’s the need of the hour. I think people are much more conscious of the environment as we’ve seen a lot of people sporting reusable masks. And if they are given an option to be safe while also being sustainable and fashionable, why not?” Vikyath said to Gulf News.

“We just launched this week, but the response so far has been great. We’ve had a lot of enquiries on our designs, prices etc. We’ve already noticed some customer favourites, so we are using this intel and feedback to design our next collection,” Kevin told Gulf News. My favourite piece is ‘Candy Addict’. Vikyath’s favourite is “Table Cloth” and “Army Green”.

Their most popular piece so far has been Thug Bandana. It’s a black bandana style mask that the duo say is being ordered and pre-ordered.

COVID -19 influence on people’s purchasing patterns

Although, you, as a regular person may not see it, the designers do see it. COVID-19 has influenced how people shop for clothing and accessories. Another UAE based designer, MarMar Halim confirms this. “There will definitely be a change in the future of fashion,” she told Gulf News. “We have to focus more on sustainability and choosing the best materials to minimize our carbon footprint as well as eliminating production wastage. On a market level, consumers are so smart these days, especially when buying from environment and community passionate brands. Also considering the new purchase trends in terms of pricing.

Marmar Halim is an Egyptian Semi-Couture designer who has been creating minimalistic and colourful clothes. Her brand recently started creating masks, in response to the pandemic. “When the COVID-19 outbreak started, the brand immediately began to contribute towards the community and turn its full production capacity to produce PPE equipment and masks. The idea of fashionable masks was developed right afterwards and I started working on it to come up with fashionable mask with unique designs, yet protective by adding opening to the design to insert a filter sheet,” Marmar told Gulf News.

Marmar originally designed a few masks for herself, but then decided to start a line in her brand. “I was planning to do it for myself initially, as I wanted something light to cover my face. I designed them with positive messages on them like “ Be Kind” and “Universal Sign of Happiness” and more,” she told Gulf News.

Her collection was an immediate hit. “Thankfully, when the fashionable masks project launched, it was so popular among the UAE resident. The most amazing moment for me was when movement restrictions were lifted and I saw people wearing the mask in the mall or in the street.”

Marmar loves all of her masks, but if she had to choose one favourite, it would be the one with the Arabic word “life” written on it. I wanted to say that life will always find a way and we have to continue living and surviving during the tough times.

Fashionable masks, may not be a neccessity, but they are a small investment, that will keep us a little more comfortable and fashionable. “It’s a nice little key chain that we can keep forever. Once this is over, we can keep them as vintage souvenirs, that we can show our kids and tell them the story about how we all stayed home for three months and had to cover half of our faces,” Essa Walla said to Gulf News.

Aesthetically, surgical masks aren’t the prettiest thing, so we add we a little fashion to it.