COVID-19 face masks mix fashion, politics, culture and business

Retailers, fashion designers and textile producers in North Carolina are adapting to the new mask market now that they’re mandatory.

The important accessory isn’t mandated by fashion, but has been by Governor Roy Cooper’s office since late June. And if everyone has to wear masks to try to cut down spread of the coronavirus, they at least want to do it in style.

Lisbeth Arias, an owner of the Triangle-based artisan clothing brand Descalza, says the light bulb went on for her when people started asking if she made masks available when the pandemic struck.

“I feel that people will love to wear these fabrics… they already love to wear them as clothes,” Arias said in an interview. “Why not as accessories that save our lives right now?”

Using traditional fabrics from her native El Salvador as well as Guatemala to make clothes like ties and skirts, Arias’ Central American-focused brand has represented a sartorial connection to Latin America for Latinos in the United States.

“I grew up with that mindset, having one foot here and one foot over there,” said Arias, who immigrated to the town of Sanford at age 2. “As you get older, identity becomes a big part of you. For me, that really fueled the reason as to why I started Descalza.”

Descalza’s new mask line has streamlined the cultural message and taken Descalza’s materials and cultural representation to more places.

Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Once she started making masks, Descalza’s market quickly spread beyond North Carolina and across the nation by using the same leftover fabric pieces she’s used for smaller accessories, like headbands and keychains.

Seeking to serve her community, Arias, a North Carolina State University alumna, partnered with a friend at the farmworker health and safety program of the N.C. State Extension, a program of the school’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Now, for every mask purchased, one is made for an immigrant Latino farmworker during this agricultural season through the N.C. State Extension.

Since Descalza sources fabrics from co-op programs in El Salvador and artisans in Guatemala, Arias says a silver lining of the new mask fashion is that she’s supporting the damaged economies in Central America.

“These masks, the fact that we’re using their fabrics to create them, we’re getting some sort of ball rolling for the artisans… It’s not a lot, but it’s helping them out,” said Arias.

N.C. State University graduate Lisbeth Arias has added masks to the inventory for her clothing line, Descalza, which utilizes textiles made by artisans in Guatemala and El Salvador. Here, Arias cuts cloth for future masks in a the garage of a family member’s home in Wake Forest on Friday, July 24, 2020. For each mask Arias sells, she donates a mask to a farmworker through a partnership with North Carolina Extension. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Custom masks mean more are worn

While culture and supporting essential workers is part of the ethos of brands like Descalza, online mask makers like Sara Huestis makes masks from Spider-Man to the Durham Bulls that are simply fun for customers.

“After covering half of their face, they still want to be able to show some personality,” said Huestis, who runs the Apex-based MakersKnitShop on Etsy. “A paper mask can feel so dull and clinical. My sister tells me she tries to match her mask to her outfit each day. It’s looking like masks are going to be around for a while, so we should make the best of it.”

Huestis says her masks with characters like Peppa Pig or Thomas the Tank Engine are the only way many parents say their children will wear masks.

“I know that my 82-year-old father won’t wear a mask unless it has the Marine Corps or his alma mater on it,” said Huestis. “I think especially when it comes to kids who may not feel comfortable in a mask at first, if you can find one with something fun that they like and can relate to, that can help ease their apprehension.”

Paulina Cash, a Raleigh resident who took her two boys shopping with her at Crabtree Valley Mall one recent afternoon, seconded that. Cash, originally from Guatemala, has known how to sew for most of her life, so it was an easy solution to make masks out of bright green bandanas for her boys.

“They complained that the regular masks were uncomfortable, so this is the only way they’ll wear them,” Cash said.

Masks can also play a role of both identity and activism for people like Jamil Lowery, a Black man who lives in Durham.

“I definitely want people to see my mask,” said Lowery, who bought a black mask that read “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in white print on it at a kiosk at the mall. “It’s making a statement, it’s time for a change. I have another mask that says ‘I can’t breathe’ and I want a second one.”

Demand for businesses

Lowery bought his mask at an unnamed kiosk at the mall that sells face coverings with various designs. On a recent afternoon, Adelina Berlyand, a Russian immigrant visiting the United States with a summer work visa, was operating it.

“Of course, that one is the most popular mask I sell,” Berlyand said of the Black Lives Matter mask. But she also sells a mask with green marijuana leaves on it.

In the month-and-a half since a Turkish immigrant businessman opened the kiosk, a customer base of teenagers and millennials have kept her busy, Berlyand said.

Masks are also stimulating local businesses, like Garner-based startup Sanctuary Systems, an environmentally conscious non-woven textile company that shifted its production to masks for Triangle companies.

The company can make 3,500 to 3,600 masks per hour on its one machine and plans to add more machines to keep up with demand.

“While face masks are not our primary product, we see them as becoming a regular part of someone’s attire and a common courtesy, as is seen in many other cultures,” said Stephen Sharp, the company’s operations director, in a press release.

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Aaron Sánchez-Guerra is the business and real estate reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He previously worked at WLRN Public Media in Miami and as a freelance journalist in Raleigh and Charlotte covering the Latino population. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University, a native Spanish speaker and was born in Mexico.

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