In 2020, we’ve seen just about every business in the world performatively toss around the word safe when they talk about all the precautions they’re taking to protect customers and employees. That mentality extends to many mask designs, which have pushed fashionable aesthetics first and validity second . . . or not at all.
But safety is a nebulous claim when it’s not backed by real, hard science. At last, a prominent designer has released a mask that has proven efficacy in a lab. Design star Virgil Abloh, teaming up with Cleveland Clinic and Suay Sew Shop in Los Angeles, has launched a $42 mask that filters 99.4% of particles that pass through it, even after it’s been washed 20 times. As a bonus, it’s breathable, and all of its proceeds go back to Cleveland Clinic’s own COVID-19 research.
The mask’s design is both unconventional and clever. Its main shell is a stretchy, Japanese “power mesh.” Special attention has been paid to the nose, where a contouring strip lays the mask tight to your face, and the drawstrings, which can be shortened to fit snug on your ears.
While that mesh improves mask fit, on its own it wouldn’t filter particles well. So inside the mask, you’ll find a surgical-grade filter that covers the expanse of the fabric. It’s essentially a surgical mask that’s been sewn right inside a cloth mask (and no, it’s not swappable, like the filters in some cloth masks are). But the mesh layers of the mask improve fit and durability. And in independent lab testing, spearheaded by the Cleveland Clinic, the mask was washed, hung dry, and tested—again and again. After 20 cycles, it was still dependable, filtering the aforementioned 99.4% of particles.
While the surgical filter inside the mask is technically a disposable product, the team has proven that it can actually be reused safely in this context. We’ve seen similar reuse models discovered for PPE. Scientists have found that you can sterilize an N95 in a microwave or Instant Pot. But Abloh’s mask further enhances the reusability of PPE by design, reinforcing what could have been a one-use surgical mask with a tailored shell.
Of course, proving things takes time, and this collaboration started near the beginning of the pandemic. This many months into COVID-19 would have been too long to wait for our first masks, so it’s vital that companies from Reformation to Old Navy stepped up early to help. But at the same time, Abloh’s partnership proves something important: Fashion-born design can be grounded in real science. It just takes some extra effort.