Remember when sports brands made sneakers?

They still do, but that’s not why the likes of Nike, Adidas and Puma have made the headlines in 2020. Instead, their most raved-about drops this year are for a product that couldn’t be further from footwear: face masks.

Thanks to the pandemic, the literal must-have accessory has dominated the world. Anyone who could get their hands on cloth (cotton is good enough) could be a purveyor of these protective masks; fashion brands, bridal businesses and even artists have designed their own.

Of course, before it became an accessory, the mask was first a necessity. Faced with a shortage of medical supplies, healthcare workers were in need of personal protective equipment (PPE) like surgical masks, which fashion brands scrambled to make.

Activewear brands had an added advantage: they could deliver both form and function. Nike took apart its Nike Air sneakers to create full-face shields and powered, air-purifying respirator (PAPR) lenses. New Balance, too, used technical sneaker materials for the one million face masks it made for the medical community. On the other hand, Under Armour’s innovative “origami mask” was made of a single piece of fabric — and zero sewing.

In the words of New Balance, manufacturing these masks were “not a commercial opportunity” for sportswear brands. After all, safety comes first. But then style came second: fashion labels like Supreme, BAPE and Marine Serre proved the profitability of these face coverings, offering logo-bearing versions priced in the hundreds. These became just as covetable among streetwear fans, who sought the sold-out designs on resale platforms like StockX. A bright yellow Off-White cotton mask can now be yours for US$449 (S$625.25), or nine Virgils.

It didn’t take long for sportswear labels to follow up with their own designs. New Balance drew on the prototypes it produced for healthcare workers to make the NB Face Mask V3. The lightweight, 3-layer piece, which came with a polyurethane filtration foam, is now sold out after being unveiled just two weeks ago.

That was the same time Puma launched its adjustable, reusable face mask, from which a portion of proceeds go to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Adidas has recently restocked its face covers in new colours, but you can also find a similarly sporty design from Reebok if they sell out again.

But if you want a mask that was actually designed for sports, Under Armour has you covered. Dubbed the “SPORTSMASK“, the brand’s latest offering boasts a range of features that makes it very wearable when exercising: air pockets for better airflow, a cooling fabric treated with anti-microbial technology, and an adjustable nose bridge to secure it on the face.

Athletes may soon be spoiled with even more choices. New Balance hinted at the launch of an “athletics-ready face mask”, which may arrive as early as July. Reebok also revealed a few fitness mask concepts, incorporating ambitious features like VR technology, anti-fog screens and sensors to track breathing, heart rate and temperature.

Reebok’s futuristic designs are not yet in the works, but they do give us an idea of where the humble face mask is headed: to the gym. Or the running track. Or the tennis court.

After all, just like our lives, fitness has already taken over fashion (see: activewear, athleisure). It’s not unlikely for sportswear brands to permanently offer functional fitness masks alongside track pants and trainers — not when the world is still trying to combat a virus spread by poor hygiene.

If masks that do the bare minimum in protecting us can become trendy pieces, who’s to say that those that actually enhance our lives won’t become staple pieces? And if this year and countless inspirational sportswear campaigns have taught us anything, it’s that anything is possible.

 

Header photo credit: Under Armour

Pameyla Cambe
Senior Writer
Pameyla Cambe is a fashion and jewellery writer who believes that style and substance shouldn't be mutually exclusive. She makes sense of the world through Gothic novels, horror films and music. Lots of music.