How Covid couture is driving philanthropy and keeping fashion houses open during pandemic

By Karishma Dipa Time of article published Jun 23, 2020

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As the social scene in most countries around the world has been temporarily suspended in a desperate bid to stop the spread of Covid-19, high-end attire has had to retire to the back of the wardrobe.

But the global pandemic has not stopped people from all walks of life from seeking fashionable, bespoke, quirky and unique pandemic gear, which also serves as a layer of protection against the deadly virus.

This quest has given birth to the Covid couture phenomenon, which has swept the globe as personalised masks, face shields and gloves have been in high demand.

While these in-vogue items have served as a stylish distraction during these unprecedented times, they have also kept the fashion industry afloat, with many of their customised items being donated to in-need recipients.

This includes the likes of Christian Siriano, Zara, H&M and Prada, who are using their factories to produce necessities solely for medical staff, while the proceeds from Manchester United midfielder Jesse Lingard’s J Lingz masks will be donated to Britain’s National Health Service.

Acclaimed African designer Kahindo Mateene, who is now based in New York City, told Saturday Star this week that the funds generated by her "buy one give two" mask initiative have been donated to Brooklyn Hospital and essential workers in the city.

“Given the current situation now, we want to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and will be donating 10% of proceeds to organisations fighting for social justice in the US," she said.

Uganda-born fashion designer Kahindo Mateene, based in New York, has started the ‘buy one give two’ mask initiative. The proceeds have been donated to Brooklyn Hospital and essential workers in the US city. Image: SUPPLIED

In South Africa, designers have also been putting their craft to good use.

Fashion house Amen have been making masks for corporates, with proceeds from the sales going towards the Growing Champions Foundation, a Randburg-based charity that supports children who don’t have families.

But the creation of Covid couture is not just to help those in need.

Masks, face shields and gloves made from luxurious fabrics and in different colours, fits and designs, give people a platform to express themselves while protecting themselves against the coronavirus in the most stylish way possible, said local designer JJ Schoeman.

“We are fooling ourselves if we think for a second that consumers are satisfied with the ‘ordinary,'" said Schoeman.

“A crisis might limit some people’s personal choices, but I have learned consumers prefer more, or just better, than what is on offer. The key lies in individuality, personal choice, and style or status, even more so during tough times.”

Acclaimed fashion designer JJ Schoeman believes that bespoke and personalised masks give people a platform to express their individuality and serve as a beautiful distraction during these difficult times.| Image: SUPPLIED

These sentiments were shared by SA Fashion Week (SAFW) founder and director Lucilla Booysen, who believes that people need beauty now more than ever.

“We have a need to surround ourselves with what is beautiful to us,” she said.

“What we wear is a reflection of ourselves, it is the language we speak without speaking, it is the message we give to the world about our past, present and future - it gives shape to our emotions.”

As the Covid couture market is still emerging in South Africa, headgear design house The Hat Factory is accelerating the process.

While it has been making a range of different headwear since 1936, many of which has been worn by the likes of acclaimed media personality Aisha Baker, actress Rolanda Marais and plus-size model Yoliswa Mqoco, the Covid-19 pandemic has given it the opportunity to diversify its offerings.

“We have been making hats all these years and it just felt like the perfect idea to add a PVC (polyvinyl chloride) shield visor to one of our existing designs but adapt the materials,” founder Crystal Birch told Saturday Star.

Some of their most in-demand Covid couture wear has been bespoke visors for kids.

Cape Town headgear design house The Hat Factory has been designing a range of protective visors. These have proven to be been popular, and have been customised for children as they are more comfortable for youngsters to wear than face masks.| Picture: ALIX-COWIE ROSE

They come in a variety of designs and colours including denim, and are popular amongst youngsters as they are more comfortable for them to wear them in public than masks.

Another aspect of Birch’s designs is that they are proudly South African and all materials are locally sourced.

“Consumers need to know that they have buying power and supporting local is immensely important to keep local businesses operating,” said Birch.

Meanwhile, Schoeman has also been forced to adapt his operations during the pandemic and has been designing bespoke masks.

“When the lockdown was announced, the whole social scene such as parties and weddings fell apart so the demand for a bespoke or couture evening dress just fell away in a second.

"The only item that was on-demand was a facial mask, so we offered these products to our clients; we manufactured them by specification and couriered them to their doors.”

Booysen said the SAFW designers have also been creating bespoke protective gear and have been selling them in vending machines in Sandton City as well as to corporates.

Local fashion house Thandana has also used the lockdown to create designer masks, which have been made to suit individual functionality as a necessary accessory to blend in with people's attire.

Local fashion house Thandana has created designer masks made to suit individual functionality as a necessary accessory to blend in with people’s outfits.| Image: SUPPLIED

“We designed the cup mask to give the user a more breathable option, rather than a tightly wrapped cloth around your mouth and face,” the organisation said. “The different prints enable you to mix and match to suit your specific needs for the day.”

The Saturday Star

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