The paradoxical design of it all. Despite Omicron continuing to unmask the face of health inequality, xenophobia, nationalism etc, Black and Brown entrepreneurs continue to create masks for ‘all’ to live through the pandemic.
It is no secret that Black communities have suffered long-standing systemic health and social inequities putting us at a greater risk of getting Covid-19 (aka Coronavirus) or succumbing to the effects of the virus. This makes it essential that we are wearing masks whenever going out in public and are in the presence of others. Thankfully there are more than 40 African-American brands online that are designing and selling unique and fashionable face masks that not only allow you to be safe but also to be stylish.
“I think people are looking for ways to remain positive about what’s happening while maintaining safety standards,” says Sophia Danner-Okotie, Creative Director of Besida of Nigeria who began making masks as donations to local hospitals in Georgia. “Masks have hidden our most beautiful feature, our smile. Creative and fashionable masks are a substitute for our smiles in my opinion. We are all saying, Covid is not going to take our smiles away.”
After the first case of Covid-19 on U.S. soil this past January and the number of people infected with the virus began to spiral out of control, it was soon suggested that one of the best ways to slow the spread was to wear a mask. The problem was they were hard to find in the beginning. It didn’t take long before small business owners and creatives started to make and sell their own masks with their own unique flair that were more interesting than the plain blue or white masks being sold at the local drug stores. Social media was soon flooded with photos of people sporting all types of face masks designed in African fabric, the color of African and West Indian countries flags, bandanas, and various political phrases.
The most popular style of masks are those made with African print and fabric. During this time of being socially and culturally “woke” many African-Americans feel a sense of pride in sporting a mask that reflects their Afrocentric identity.
“Part of our culture is to express ourselves visually, and these masks are like having a little piece of art on your face” says Janice Brown owner of Tarbaby Hair Design who has shipped masks to every state in the U.S. except Alaska. “A lot of [my customers] are ordering the masks with African print because it’s a way of self-expressing our ancestry.”
Other popular style of masks reflect the social turmoil that has embroiled the U.S. this year after the shootings of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement and those posing as law enforcement. Masks with phrases “Black Lives Matter,” “I Can’t Breath,” “Say Her Name,” or the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both killed by police officers, can readily be seen on face masks.
Other designers find material from fabric stores or other arts and crafts stores to make face masks with. Based in North Carolina Bonnie Love Boutique has a wide selection of face masks with patterns that include comic book characters, sports teams, army fatigue, and polka dots among others.
“It’s no fun if we don’t have different colors and prints,” says Bonnie the owner of Bonnie Love Boutique who has a background in health care and has had hands-on experience with patients that had respiratory issues and tracheotomies. “I like the style I do better than the pleated ones. A lot of people use the pleated ones for the removable filters, but I make them with filters in place and they are completely washable, and no need to purchase filters separately.”
With the economy reeling from high unemployment, people being told to stay home, and most of the U.S. on lockdown all due to the effects of the pandemic many small businesses that were suffering during the lockdown have been thrown a lifeline with the popularity of stylish face masks.
Lisa Campbell owner of Royal Monocracy began designing and selling her masks designed in sequin after realizing her business would have to adjust to the new realities of the economy being rocked by the pandemic.
“With an enormous amount of the general public becoming unemployed and thrown into financial uncertainty my business was facing a certain crisis if I did not adjust to the new situation at hand,” said Campbell. “I feel very blessed and honored and humbled that I am able to maintain during this current crisis. I have had an excellent response from my customer. Nearly twenty-five percent of our business is repeat customers with no dispute activity. Many customers are returning to purchase for friends and family and many more customers want one in every new color that comes out.”
Tarbaby Hair Designs which has a salon in Brooklyn had plans to open a second salon in Philadelphia when the pandemic started but those plans came to a halt when the finances got tight, but after Brown had a dream that she said was divine instructions to create face masks, things quickly changed for the better.
“I was able to pay my mortgage and pay my rent, it was phenomenal and I had to stay on the machine for three weeks to get all of my orders out,” says Brown who hadn’t received any assistance from the Government through the stimulus check, unemployment, or the Payment Protection Program. “I thought things were going to calm down, but then the bottom half of America blew up again with the virus and I had to do a second set of masks.”
As more and more states and cities began to make masks mandatory the fact that there are so many options to find fashionable masks means that there are no excuses for not doing our part in slowing the spread. Check out the lists of brands below to find masks that fit your personality.
Fashion beyond barriers is the tagline for Kimuli Fashionability. They create special masks to help people with and without disabilities to communicate. Through its partnership with Masks 4 Disability, the Ugandan fashion brand is able to distribute windowed facemasks to anyone in the United States.
Charlene (pronounced SWAH-ko-ko) is an African-inspired lifestyle brand, owned and directed by Charlene Dunbar. Textures, colors, and mix-matching prints are her signature. Suakoko Betty’s authentic African wax print dress collection was sold in select Belk stores and received rave reviews from longstanding and new customers. Suakoko Betty has been featured in ESSENCE and Garden and Gun and is available at boutiques in the Southeast US and online.
Hey there! I’m Sade Disu and founded an award-winning 15-year-old digital media and marketing agency And Brand Culture where I provide culture-focused advisory, storytelling, and content solutions for Executives and startup founders looking to increase engagement with multi-cultural audiences and media platforms organically.
My content strategies and proprietary live event platforms (like AfricaFashionWeek.com) are deemed unmatched for their convening power of global content, culture, and empowerment according to Forbes, LA Times, Essence, and Black Enterprise. And even more, was given a proclamation, by former Mayor of New York (now Presidential candidate) Michael Bloomberg in 2010.
Africa Fashion Week results increased brand awareness 8.5 million views; $300+ K in revenue generated per event, and 6 K+ newsletter subscribers per event. Media giants such as Hearst Magazines caught wind of my work and influence — the ability to connect to and with consumers through cultural content and experiential solutions. HEARST immediately hired my consultancy to advise, produce content, and launch its international spin-off of COSMOPOLITAN Nigeria.
My press-ordained and award-winning event platforms and digital content work have been leveraged by Shea Moisture, Kimora Lee Simons, Iman Cosmetics, Pikolinos, Zara, Roommate Hotels, and USAID. ( 4-page press feature in Black Enterprise and 2-page press feature in Forbes French Edition.)
Clients have used my four-tier prong approach “culture + content” = “community + commerce” when looking to connect with audiences with nuisance cultures and attitudes.