“We’re all in New Orleans, and here in New Orleans, we like to drink.”
That’s Ellen Macomber. Artist. Seamstress. Imbiber. She makes just the sort of ornate, feathered, and sequined garments that you’d associate with celebrations like Mardi Gras. But with tourism down, she couldn’t afford to pay her assistant. So like many fashion houses, Macomber turned to producing something a lot of people told her they wanted: COVID-19 masks.
At the suggestion of a friend, Macomber added her own spin. She created a mask with a small slot in the middle, which can fit a straw for sipping cocktails. She and her assistant produced 40 masks in a week for $30 apiece; they sold out within 30 minutes. And now, Macomber is trying to ramp up production, but the handmade process puts a natural limiter on it: Each mask takes an hour to complete.
Macomber makes the masks out of her own stockpile of recycled textile parts, which is key, since she’s found it difficult to source new fabric at the moment. They masks are ornate on the outside, but have a practical jersey knit cotton on the inside. And the straw hole is not really a hole at all.
“We were thinking of doing a lip appliqué, where it would flap open and close but you’d have to touch your face. I was like, ‘Well that won’t work because you have to touch your mask,” says Macomber. “That’s when I was like, ‘Dude, we just drill a little flap, an extra layer, and you angle the straw to get in. So the hole is never completely open.'”
Still, Macomber admits she is not a public health specialist, and she doesn’t claim that her mask should be the de facto for COVID-19 prevention. But she does feel it responds to an important niche: all of the people she saw with her own eyes, gathering on porches to drink while keeping a 6-foot distance from one another but not wearing masks. There’s actually a strong historical parallel in this design. During the 1918 Spanish Flu, many men cut holes in their masks to fit cigarettes and cigars.
“Anything is better than nothing,” she says, before noting that her cocktail mask might supplement a more secure mask you’d wear near your grandmother or during a grocery store run. “Variety is the spice of life. If we’re going to be handling different errands . . . this is just one option for one of the variety of errands you’re needing to do.”
Assuming the demand for the cocktail masks ever relents, Macomber has plans to make masks without flaps, and even masks for children and babies. What started as a temporary side hustle could grow to be an anchor for her business.
“This is the biggest shitshow I’ve ever encountered in my life,” says Macomber. “So I’m just rolling with the punches, and trying to provide my clients with what they’re asking for: a mask. This is my take on it.”