Brands are helping the community
Xenia Chen’s brand, Threads, a direct-to-consumer line of tights, was hit hard by the pandemic. “Our core product is a wardrobe staple for women when they go to work. When everyone started isolating in March, we saw a drastic drop in sales,” says Chen, a former investment banker who launched her own brand of nylons after growing frustrated with the costly, poor-quality options she was constantly buying at drugstores. “Threads is an early-stage business, and we were seeing momentum in the months leading up to the start of the pandemic,” she says, “so it was really disappointing for our team when the world pretty much turned upside down.”
Threads tights are made in Castel Goffredo in Northern Italy, a region that was hard-hit by COVID-19 earlier this year. Prior to the pandemic, the country, like Canada, did not have a mass culture of mask-wearing—that quickly changed, and with it, Chen’s factory, converting some of its production facilities to make masks. “Our factory asked us in March if we wanted to use some of our production capacity [to make masks]. We agreed, predicting that Canada would soon follow suit with mask recommendations,” explains Chen. Threads launched masks on April 4, the very same day Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, announced that wearing a mask can help limit transmission of the virus.
Chen says that April mask sales were “insane” and that demand has since remained steady. Though the company has kept profit margins on the masks low—just enough to stay in operation—the volume of sales has helped with the company’s cash flow. “I know many other small businesses were not so lucky during this pandemic,” says Chen.
A little pick-me-up?
“There was a demand and my business is quiet and a business is not a business if you’re not making money”
Making a profit from selling masks is something designer Kate Pierre grappled with. “It’s almost like an argument I had with myself,” says the Vancouver-based founder of clothing line Kate & Frances. “But there was a demand, and my business is quiet, and a business is not a business if you’re not making money,” she says. Pierre started by making masks for friends and family and has since expanded, offering her brightly coloured coverings on her website. “It’s a way to build a community as well, so many designers are making masks now and helping each other source materials,” says Pierre.
Nina Kharey, the Calgary-based designer of luxe womenswear line Nonie made news around the world when Meghan Markle wore a trench-coat style dress by the designer in 2018. With the coronavirus, “there has definitely been a drop in sales,” says Kharey. “But I don’t think it’s just fashion, I think it’s everywhere. People have started realizing how little they actually need and it seems like consumerism is becoming a deeply discussed topic.” Kharey started making masks out of spare rolls of cotton after some encouragement from her mother. “I figured that if I had the means to help in this fight we’re all in, then I need to be doing it.” Though Kharey still gets regular sales “here and there” she shares that if it wasn’t for her mask sales, “I probably would be in a really difficult place.”
All the designers I spoke with said that mask sales were at their highest in March, April and May. Cloth masks are, after all, reusable, so it’s natural to expect sales to taper off once everyone has one or two masks on hand. Toronto designer Ellie Mae saw a second uptick in mask sales once she released a line made from Liberty of London print fabric. As they become more and more commonplace (and as options abound) we’ll likely continue to seek out masks that blend style with protection. Vancouver brand Bronze Age sells masks with scrunchies to match, and designers are increasingly offering ones that match a blouse or a dress. Kharey, meanwhile, has been listening to customer feedback and tinkering with the fit.
For designers, selling masks comes with another unexpected benefit: increased brand awareness. For Pierre, “It’s been a way to interact and connect with people. I’ve had really great feedback. This is the start of people realizing who is making their products and the story behind a brand,” she says. “When they know your story, they are more inclined to support you.” Kharey has had “so many people emailing to say they didn’t know we existed.” Threads customers have even told Chen that they plan to try her tights when this is all over. A world where women are wearing tights again—I can’t think of a better marker of normalcy. Until then, how about a nylon face mask instead?
SHOP THE STORY
THREADS Threads mask, $17 (pack of 2), threadshelps.co
KATE & FRANCES Kate & Frances mask, $15, kateandfrances.com
NONIE Nonie mask, $33, houseofnonie.com
ELLIE MAE STUDIOS Ellie Mae Studios mask, $25, elliemaestudios.com