With approximately 1.35 billion people living in the world’s most polluted cities, air pollution is a significant part of daily life in China. In 2013, more than 1.2 million premature deaths in China alone were linked to air pollution, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Burden of Disease project.
Wearing surgical masks to block dangerous air particles (and disease) has been in practice by Chinese citizens for years already, but so far the masks have only served as an inconvenience to the #ootd [sic: outfit of the day], and not a staple. But in March of last year, Max Factor’s Sina Weibo makeup line sponsored a selfie photo contest through their social media channels, calling readers to flaunt their meticulous eye makeup while wearing a smog mask. Weibo users responded with over 33,000 tweets with the campaign’s hashtag.
The campaign seems to have served as a launching point for incorporating the face mask into high fashion, as several designers showcased couture and high design face masks, gas masks, and face shields into their Spring/Summer 2015 collections at Chinese Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week.
Qiaodan Yin Peng’s Sports Wear Collection is receiving the most attention, as his collection features a variety of styles for both men and women, including high design running masks.
In October of last year, Beijing received international remorse for refusing to cancel a marathon in the city while air pollution levels were 14 times higher than the safe air conditions recommended by WHO. 30,000 athletes ran the International Marathon, and organizers distributed 140,000 water-soaked sponges to runners to cleanse their skin with after being exposed to the polluted air.
Runners were photographed wearing heavy gas masks and thick face masks, which made breathing and top speed difficult during the 26 mile run.
Yin Peng’s designs combine functionality with necessity AND aesthetics in a seamless manner. His outfits on the catwalk were designed around the masks, which is being seen as an innovative and revolutionary sartorial movement towards dealing with the realities of China’s toxic air.
Masha Ma, another Chinese designer who apprenticed under Alexander McQueen and has dressed celebrities like Lady Gaga, featured haute couture face masks on her runway at Paris Fashion Week. Swarovski crystals and delicate embroidery embellished the faces of chic, elegant models on the catwalk. Together with SANKUANZ, Qiu Hao, and Xander Zhou, Ma collaborated on Yooxygen, a series of couture masks with an eco-friendly initiative for Yoox, a luxury e-commerce site.
Other companies like Vogmask and Respro have introduced high design filtering masks with a focus on the Chinese market. These masks provide protection from PM 2.5 particles (fine particles like soot from fossil fuel combustion) while still looking fashionable with bright graphics for urban commuting.
in 2010, 15 percent of total deaths in China were linked to PM 2.5 particles in the air, accounting for 40 percent of the world’s air pollution-related deaths. In 2013, an eight-year-old girl in China became the youngest person ever to be diagnosed with lung cancer. The air pollution in China is real and detrimental, and although the country has declared a “war on smog,” working with international efforts to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, dirty cars, and deploying more clean energy, China has a long way to go before the air becomes breathable. Leave it to the fashion industry to make the greatest impact to date on dealing with this national crisis.