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Hackney Mask: A Fashion Designer’s Answer to the Pandemic

Like many UK residents, Korean fashion designer Jackie JS Lee watched in horror as COVID19 swept through China, South Korea and Italy in early February. With the pandemic worsening as time passed, Jackie turned to masks to protect herself and others from exposure to the virus. However, the 2007 Central Saint Martins graduate was shocked to find that masks on the market were either out of stock or ridiculously highly priced. After the initial surprise came the worry – what about people who really needed masks such as essential workers? With masks on such high demand, maybe those at risk aren’t being protected properly?

This concern birthed Hackney Mask, a project set up by Jackie, founder of the fashion label J JS Lee, in order to donate homemade masks and raise awareness on the effectiveness of mask-wearing. Although the fabric masks are not of medical grade, they contain disposable melt-blown filters in order to provide some level of protection.

Speaking to Strand about the brand, Jackie mentions that it was only natural of her to think about using her “sewing, patterning, and design” skills as a fashion designer and her experience with “production sourcing and material sourcing” to get through this horrid situation.

Hackney Mask started out small. “In the beginning, the fabric was donated and I used my dead stock. We were aiming to make a couple hundred masks from the donated fabric,” Jackie recalls. It was also very local with about 300 to 400 free mask distributions happening in “the hackney area”. According to the designer, it was initially, “about the supermarket in front of my house and the Tesco just under my studio”. Hackney Mask became a full-fledged project when one of her three volunteers suggested that they mass produce the masks to satisfy the increasing demands. To meet the production costs and to continue donating masks to essential workers, the team decided to sell her masks to the UK public. “When we sell a pair of masks, we donate one mask on top of the quantity we set aside to be donated,” says Jackie describing the business model. The funds from the purchases are used to keep the production going.

Hackney mask has donated about 2800 masks up to date. Jackie expresses her gratitude to the many people that supported the project “by purchasing masks or donating money”. The team is now in the process of starting a second production to continue meeting the needs of essential workers and care workers.

The journey to success was anything but easy, however. Jackie brings up the mixed reaction she received, ”now it’s all about the positive but at the beginning it was negative. When I started giving away free masks to people, some people said, ‘don’t do it - you’re contributing to the fear’”. Maintaining mass production was another difficulty as, understandably, the factory workers were afraid to come in due to the corona virus. As safety comes first, Jackie’s team and the factory owner delivered sewing machines to workers’ houses so that they could work from home.

The hard work Jackie put into Hackney mask seems to have been payed off by the grateful recipients of her donations. “We’ve received many direct messages from the people who appreciate these masks especially essential workers,” Jackie says proudly. She proceeds to bring up the many times she received handwritten letters or that time she found a bottle of wine at her door. The fashion designer lights up as she tells me the story of when she received a 50-person portion of sandwiches, drinks and snacks from the Co-op supermarkets in East London as a thank you for the mask donations. “We had to send them to a food bank because we couldn’t finish it all!” Jackie laughs.

Jackie isn’t the only member of the fashion industry contributing to COVID19 relief. The designer says many other designers are working to tackle the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the United Kingdom. One such case is that of the clothing brand Mackintosh with their Nelson Factory giving over production for nurse uniforms. On 19 March, the British Fashion Council (BFC) uploaded a call for “all designers with production capacity” announcing their collaboration with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) to “manufacture essential products”. Many brands are also producing their own cloth masks to encourage face covering. Despite the lack of medically certified materials and the general hardship faced due to lockdown, fashion labels are trying their best to support key workers at this time.

Despite Jackie and the fashion industry’s efforts in promoting masks as a form of protection, there is still an uncertainty around its use in the UK. This skepticism can be compared to that of East-Asian countries where masks are already a part of daily life due to “experiences with SARS and MERS” and continuous exposure to microdust pollution. “Even if we keep saying masks are important to prevent the virus from spreading, people don’t listen if the UK government guidelines don’t change,” Jackie evaluates. During the start of the pandemic, the government advised against the purchasing of face masks due to medical shortages. As weeks past, they never specifically recommended face-covering only stating that “it could be beneficial”, the fashion designer criticizes.

As if answering Jackie’s request, within days of our conversation, the government released a document titled ‘Our Plan to Rebuild’ on 10 May, which explicitly quotes under the roadmap to lift restrictions that “the Government is now advising that people should aim to wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces”. Hopefully, using this long overdue message as a springboard, UK residents will start incorporating masks in to their ‘new normal’ lives.

When asked about what she hopes to achieve with Hackney Mask in the future, Jackie replies that her only hope is that she can spread the positive effect of wearing masks as a way of caring others. She also wishes that Hackney Mask could contribute to a quicker end to the pandemic, “I don’t want to do this for one or two more months. I really want this project to finish very, very soon”.

You can support Hackney mask by purchasing or donating here.

All Photos Courtesy of Jackie JS Lee.

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