How have streetwear masks made it to one of the biggest hits in street culture? From defending the airwaves against pollution to becoming one of the latest streetwear staples, brands and artists are raising the bar for masks on the streetwear scene.
Masks have long been a very versatile accessory. From the adoption of it for on-stage purposes, such as opera, in antiquity, to the general use of it for disguise or body protection, it serves a wide range of functions. Now in the realm of modern street culture, masks have marked their spot and become progressively on trend. In recent years we’ve seen creatives making their own renditions of ‘avant-garde’ facial coverings out of some of the most sought after sneakers and even IKEA shopping bags. How did streetwear masks become such a big thing?
Above: The Ikea Streetwear Mask from Zhijun Wang
The origin of the modern mask use can be traced back to the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2003 which affected many Asian countries. Because of its highly contagious nature, citizens were recommended to wear masks. Thereafter, the public became increasingly aware of personal hygiene and air pollution, consequently the use of masks were popularised in Asia. More extremely in Japan, covering noses and mouths with surgical masks in the public is treated as an act of manner. Besides, the facial covering is often used to shield fierce wind in colder places like northern China and South Korea.
Above: The Yeezy 350 v2 Beluga Sneaker Mask from Zhijun Wang
It might seem unreal for something as dull and unappealing as pollution masks to be identified as a fashion statement. The closest we have seen might be the black plain masks celebrities would put on to draw less attention in the public. In recent years, artist and designer Zhijun Wang @zhijunwang has taken masks beyond practicality and brought the facial piece to the front of streetwear culture like no other. Based in Beijing, the capital of China, where air pollution has been a growing threat since 2012, Wang realised that some kind of handy tools to protect the body against poor air quality are necessary. His masks are most certainly doing the job.
Above: Zhijun Wang wearing his Acronym x Nike Air Presto sneaker mask creation
Previously working with the likes of Nike and New Balance on trainer projects, the Chinese creative made use of fancy sneakers that you might have queued up all-night outside the shop to cop, including Yeezys, OFF-WHITE & Acronym Nike Air Presto’s and the highly celebrated UNDEFEATED x Nike Air Max 97, in his work. Wang shattered these precious sneakers into pieces and sewed them back into fashionable protective gear with his dexterous fingers. Other than experimenting with deconstructing footwear, his masterpiece the ‘IKEA mask’, which utilised fabrics originated from the homeware brand’s signature blue shopping bag, was very well-received across the global streetwear. His effort has inspired some YouTubers to make their own run in recreating sneaker masks.
Above: The UNDEFEATED x Nike Air Max 97 Sneaker Mask from Zhijun Wang
Wang’s solo pioneering career in this revolutionary streetwear mask movement has also inspired many clothing brands to follow the trend as well as gaining attention from Acronym’s very own Errolson Hugh along the way. BAPE’s latest SS18 collection revealed the staple bright red all-cover hood mask piece which features its iconic shark graphic. Not only has the accessory given an extra bit of character to any outfit, but it could also be very handy in times of unpleasant weather conditions.
Aside from streetwear, techwear brand Stone Island set the goal to make moving across cities easier in mind and dropped a fully masked cotton beanie as a part of its Shadow Project AW17 collection. Protecting the entirety of the skull and face and leaving only the eyes uncovered, the piece’s subtle appearance preserved the low-key aesthetic of the brand as well as the practicality of the rest of their products. Clearly clothing labels are conscious of the ever-changing trends.
Above: The Stone Island Shadow Project Fusion Gaiter
Even though we are a couple of years into the mask craze, it is still difficult to justify if it is for the long-run or is it just a fad. Part of the reason is that the affiliation of streetwear masks in street culture seemed to come and go anyway. An instance of this is artist Brian Jungen’s project Prototype of New Understanding, which he reworked some of Nike’s iconic Air Jordans into tribal masks from 1998 to 2005. His creations left the world in awe, yet now it is questionable as of how aware people are of Jungen’s contribution. Would the mania for masks this time around be more long-lasting because of their functionality? Or would it just be another phase of hype that would eventually fade away in the next few years?