When Elle Bulger, of Pinch Social and board member of Fashion Group International, Toronto, asked if I’d chat with the FGI family about personal branding and image in the time of Covid-19, I don’t even know if I let her finish the question!
OF COURSE! I’d be thrilled to!
It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway) that this chapter has been a wild and wooly one. Yet, it’s also been inspiring in unexpected ways – and fashion designers and artists have been at the forefront of that for me.
I’ve watched the message on personal protective equipment shift over the past number of weeks with fascination. Initially around the terrifying PPE shortages for frontline medical workers, and progressively towards the changing recommendations for non-medical masks for the general public.
Watching this shift has felt like watching as a ceramic mug full of my favourite lavender chai latte falls off a counter. It’s happening – like, right now – and we’re thinking fast and slow about it.
There’s more facets to this issue than the one that’s staring us in the face. Here are my thoughts.
EB: Tamara – we’ve had the opportunity to connect quite a few times over the years, but for anyone meeting you for the first time today, please tell us your quick story – who are you and what do you do?
TG: Hey Elle! I love chatting with you. We always have such a good time! Yes, of course. In brief I’m a personal brand strategist, stylist and writer.
As a wardrobe stylist, I help highly visible leaders raise their profiles and represent their value and perspective with confidence.
As a writer, I help lifestyle brands build cult-like followings so they can take their signature offering from “sampled” to “staple” with the sales to match.
All of what I do comes with a heaping amount of strategy. After all, that’s the backbone of my training. I am a Personal Brand Strategist: both written and worn.
EB: Masks have been part of Eastern cultures for a long time. Five years ago when I was in Japan for the first time, I noticed that many people would go about their days wearing masks. Now in our Covid world, North Americans are wearing masks out of necessity. But I have a feeling that masks may become part of our norm well after this epidemic passes. What are your thoughts on this?
TG: They have been! And for a number of reasons. You picked up on something really important on your trip to Japan – one of my favourite destinations, too!
Memories of Sars are still very strong in the East, and that was only 17 years ago. Japan has had a much longer history of mask-wearing all the way back to the Spanich Flu epidemic of 1918-1919. Much later, in the 70s and 80s, people started using them to stave off hay fever. Moving to the more recent past, people in many countries in the East have adopted mask wearing to cope with high pollution days as well as illness and allergies.
The feelings around mask wearing are very different in different cultures.
In the East, regardless of the reason you choose to wear a mask on a particularl day, the unspoken messages revolve around: personal health and wellbeing, mutual respect, and sometimes even as a symbol of solidarity, like in the case of Sars. “Smog Couture” has even become a fashion movement in the East, popularized by celebrities and K-pop bands. It seems reasonable to me that the influence of celebrity also goes a long way in breaking down resistance to sporting a mask.
In the West we have very deeply embedded beliefs around the importance of showing your face and in individualism, in general. With these have come an equally strong resistance to anything that could cover the face in public.
Because of this, and other deeply embedded culture associations with masks (things like ancient rituals, crime, and medical procedures – which could be a completely different conversation), more people tend to have negative or resistant ideas about masks.
Additionally there has been a distinct and very upsetting racialization of mask wearing in the West that has resulted in wrong beliefs and emboldened racism. I can’t emphasize enough how this impacts the decision whether to wear a mask or not for some, having to weigh one’s personal safety in these two ways is a compromise no-one should have to make.
Right now, I believe we’re at a point of inflection between the stigmatization of masks and the need to push our culture past its comfort zone and embrace what other cultures have already been embracing for, in some cases, 100 years.
As with any confirmation bias, humans naturally seek any kind of evidence to support their pre-existing belief – and that includes finding scientific reasons to support why we should or should not wear masks.
For many reasons, it will be a tough shift for Western culture to make towards greater acceptance of mask-wearing.
EB: We’re seeing a lot of Canadian brands take steps to support their employees, the front liners workers by switching production to focus on PPE and masks. Are there any Canadian brands in particular that you think are at the forefront of this movement?
TG: OMG I am so, so inspired by this. In the midst of chaos, retailers and designers were amongst the first to lose their businesses. But, without hesitation, they’ve risen to the challenge of supporting their employees, and supplying frontline workers with various forms of PPE. Now, I’m thrilled to see many designers creating “everyday use” masks for the general public.
CAFA has been doing an excellent job of keeping us looped in on some of the major Canadian manufacturers who have committed to helping with a weekly round-up of new information. Additionally, there are many smaller shops working literally 24 hours a day to supply the general public with masks, too.
Some of the Canadian efforts I’ve been really impressed with have been:
Canada Goose have kept over 900 people employed making surgical gowns and scrubs since the last week of March.
The country’s favourite long johns company, Stanfield’s, are now manufacturing surgical gowns.
Kotn have partnered with Holt Renfrew to produce 1,000-2,000 reusable masks weekly to be donated to essential workplaces.
Nobis have made a $100K donation to local hospitals PLUS donating all revenues from online sales to the Canadian Red Cross and Canada Helps COVID-19 funds.
Harry Rosen with their shirting company Shirt Fit, are using remnant dress shirt material to make masks initially donated to Canadian hospitals – and are now also available to the general public with a “buy 1, donate 1” campaign.
Redwood Classics, known for super cozy private label sweats, have created a “buy 1, donate 1” program as well as a DIY kit for home sewists to make their own!
Unbelts have already supplied free unbelts to frontline workers, and are in the midst of pre-orders for their soon-to-be released masks.
Smaller designers and retailers have also pivoted to serve the public better:
Peace Collective have released a “buy 1, donate 1” campaign with masks that work with their renown Canada-centric loungewear. Additionally, every garment purchased will provide 3 meals to a Canadian in need in major cities across Canada.
Toronto maternity retailer, Carry Maternity, are gifting a free mask for every order over $50 and, due to popular demand, are now selling them separately with all proceeds going to Women’s College Hospital Mental Health Program.
An equestrian clothier in Caledon, Ontario Turnout Points, have been making and selling masks for weeks and they come in 3 different sizes.
Izzy Camilleri, Canadian design legend and innovator, has partnered with Birks for a buy one, donate one mask effort.
Toronto fashion design sweetheart, Hillary MacMillan’s team are sewing masks for the vulnerable in Toronto, donating them to frontline workplaces such as pharmacies.
Eveningwear brand, Narces, began by sewing masks solely for donation to essential workers, and now offer a “buy 1, donate 2” model to protect both essential workers and the general public. (I’m not gonna lie, I’d love one of their gold shimmer masks…)
Two masks that I’ve already purchased:
Super edgy Toronto-based brand, LocoOne, have designed a unique super comfortable daily wear mask that is protective – and works with their entire collection.
Mila Yudina Design primarily does interiors and jewelry. Still, that hasn’t stopped her from answering the call. She is making masks for her community with touchless drop-off.
Some companies might not be making PPE, but they’re committing to the wellbeing of their staff:
Aritzia is my favourite example of this. Their bricks and mortar stores are obviously closed for the time being. But, where most of the sector have sadly had to furlough or lay off their staff, Aritzia decided that they would support their staff by committing 100% of their online revenues to the Aritzia Community Relief Fund. Over $8.8 MILLION dollars have been associated with the fund, which will be distributed across more than 3,000 employees.
EB: In the last week alone, I’ve read articles in Vogue and Forbes about stylish face masks. Do you think face masks are going to become a fashion accessory, the same way a bandana or hair accessory is?
TG: I’ve been saying that face masks are the IT accessory of 2020, and while I do say it with a hint of drôle sarcasm, I believe it to be true. But, with the long ingrained resistance Westerns have had to mask wearing, I think it’s almost necessary to pivot the mask from being solely a PPE element into a fashionable yet functional accessory that works with your wardrobe.
When you think about it, we are already very comfortable with other items that could be considered both personal protective equipment and fashion accessories. Eyewear, sunglasses, all forms of outerwear, and probably the best example – footwear.
All of these items protect us from one thing or another, be it UV rays via sunglasses or UV clothing, the elements via outerwear, or certainly dangers on the ground via footwear. And yet – these garments and accessories aren’t just for function only, they’re integrated into our personal style and help us express personality, aesthetic, and personal values.
EB: A few weeks ago, you launched a project that really intrigued me called the Maskeraide Project. What inspired you to start this initiative? What are you hoping to learn?
TG: Yes! The past month and a half have been a very intense time for humans everywhere. We’ve been thrown into a very different reality that is causing a level of collective trauma that’s really immeasurable right now.
What has always gotten humans through intense periods have been the arts. The creative class who help us by prompting conversation, who bring emotions to the surface for us to confront and explore, to ultimately experience catharsis.
In spite of the almost complete cessation of life as we know it, many artists, designers, and creative folk have been inspired to enter this dialogue. And I’m grateful to them.
I began @MaskeraidProject on Instagram with the desire to collect and curate art and design that reflects on mask culture and PPE and share it online with that purpose. To highlight the creators and stimulate conversation. Now, I’d like to take that one step further and see how I can support independent designers and retailers in their efforts to get functional, fashion-forward masks to the wider public to help the public to see wearing masks as a non-threatening useful accessory much like shoes or protective outerwear. And, to help introduce great designers to the public encouraging a purchase that goes beyond just a mask and becomes a full aesthetic.
EB: I can’t wait to see how it develops! Thanks so much for your time, Tamara this has been such a fun chat. Looking forward to chatting again soon, and seeing you at our next in-person FGI event.
TG: This was so much fun. Thank you, Elle. I’ll look forward to it, too!