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Thanks to COVID-19, there’s a new category in retail: the cloth face mask

Self-sewn cloth face masks in a fabric store

Cloth face masks have become a chance to make a fashion statement in the time of COVID-19. Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

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Every time I scroll through my Instagram feed now, there’s another ad for another company selling face masks.

There are the classic ones in neutral tones. The ones made of organic cotton. The ones with → your company’s logo ← here.

Overnight, the face mask has become America’s new T-shirt.

And across the country, retailers are making the pivot.

For instance: Trevco, a licensing business that acquires rights from brands like Warner Bros., Hasbro and Hello Kitty to make printed T-shirts and other apparel.

In mid-March, as the COVID-19 lockdowns started, Trevco’s sales plummeted by 50 or 60 percent. But then the company looked at what was going on in China.

“We saw what happened as a result of China reopening, where it was mandatory to wear masks, and we said to ourselves, ‘This is probably going to happen here,’ ” said CEO Trevor George.

So Trevco started a new website, MaskClub.com, and started making washable, reusable masks featuring characters like Batman and the PowerPuff Girls. The masks cost $13.99 each, and the company is donating as many as it sells.

Trevco has sold about 100,000 masks so far. It even has a subscription option — a mask a month.

At a time when the clothing industry has collapsed, Trevco has found a way to sell.

“We were a 150-person company previous to the pandemic,” George said. “It brought us down to 31. We’ve hired back 50 of those people.”

There’s such high demand for face masks right now that when you try to order them, a lot of sellers can’t get them to you until May or June.

The online retailer Vida makes clothing on demand designed by artists around the world. Now, it also makes washable cotton face masks, with a slot for a disposable carbon filter. The masks cost $10 each, and Vida donates 10 percent of the profits to food banks.

The first batch of 10,000 masks sold out in about two hours.

At first, Vida’s mask options were simple — black or plaid.

“Those were the two that we could just go out with really fast,” said CEO Umaimah Mendhro. “And then we actually had, you know, people on social media saying, ‘Hey, look, can you get, you know, multiple colors because I want one for everybody in the family?’ ”

Photo courtesy of Vida

Now the masks come in multiple colors, and Vida is commissioning new designs from its artists.

The cloth face mask has become a chance to make a fashion statement.

And yes, it might seem trivial to be thinking about fashion right now. But then again, “I mean, why not look the best you can, given the situation?” said Deborah Chusid, founder of Tembo NYC, a small retailer that sells brightly colored tote bags, hand sewn by women in Queens. Tembo is also making masks now — for $20 each — and donating one for each one it sells.

Chusid said she learned this lesson from her mother, who died several years ago. “I remember my mother being in the hospital putting on lipstick and brushing her hair. She said, ‘You know, how you feel about yourself is so important. And that comes out through, you know, what you wear.’ “

And by the way, if people do feel good about how they look in a face mask, they might be more likely to wear one.

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