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Designer face masks may have seemed like a foreign concept prior to 2020, but face coverings are now a vital part of our everyday wardrobes, and in most states -- a mandatory one. As COVID-19 continues to impact the lives of billions around the world, face mask fashion won't be going away any time soon.

In the U.S., the pandemic has evolved into a culturally divisive phenomenon which has brought the merit of face masks into question. Although the scientific community almost universally agrees that masks are necessary for slowing the coronavirus' spread, many forego using them, opting for comfort and convenience over personal and public safety.

Face Mask Fashion and Functionality

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 is primarily spread via respiratory droplets. These droplets, released when someone coughs, sneezes, speaks, or even breathes, can land inside the mouths and noses of those around that person. They can also be ingested through the air.

A recent experiment by Florida Atlantic University found that simulated respiratory droplets could spread as far as 12 feet in less than a minute. When present in a still room without a breeze, the droplets lingered in the air for as long as three minutes.

Along with social distancing, masks are a simple yet effective measure in preventing these droplets from spreading, as well as protecting yourself from others. For example, N95 masks are designed to block 95% of small particles in the air.

Earlier this year, many luxury labels broke into the mask market. Their designer face masks (Billie Eilish's Instagram comes to mind) took the fashion world by storm, turning a stigmatized, government mandate into a coveted accessory.

But cool face masks with designer logos come at a premium price. Louis Vuitton's signature, knit face mask retails for $275. Dolce & Gabbana and Burberry offer slightly more affordable options in the $90-120 range.

Aside from appearance, the construction of these designer face masks isn't special or unique. Consumers are essentially paying to make a fashion statement. But the demand for both a functional and fashionable face mask is growing, and the designer of Beats by Dre has taken notice.

Are These Designer Face Masks the New 'Beats' by Dre?

Francois Nguyen, the lead designer who worked on the original Beats headphones, has experience creating products that pair fashion with function. While working on Beats, Nguyen learned how to elevate tired wearables and make them undeniably popular.

His team's iconic design, including the concentric circles around the "b" logo, became a signature element of all subsequent models. Today, Beats are worn proudly and the brand's personality serves to reflect the wearer's identity.

Nguyen saw an opportunity to take these same design principles and apply them to the PPE that, although necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19, has yet to reach the same level of acceptance or comfort as other wearable tech.

"Good design 100% can transform this experience to a more delightful one and to becoming a proud badge of identity."

Francois Nguyen

Now the creative director at a global design firm, frog, Nguyen is working with a company called Theranova to design face masks that redefine their place in culture. "Right now, masks are being used purely at a pragmatic level and it's a nuisance for most people," he explains, "but good design 100% can transform this experience to a more delightful one and to becoming a proud badge of identity in addition to serving its functionality."

Nguyen and the team at frog are designing a next-generation, clear face mask that's less claustrophobic, fits comfortably, and is easier to put on and remove. The mask's design includes a sleek face shield which protects the wearer while allowing them freedom to show their expressions. But the JustAir mask goes above and beyond other transparent face shields.

The mask features an air-purifying system for the wearer. It also filters out the air they exhale.

It features an air-purifying system that sends fresh, filtered air around the wearer's nose and mouth. It also protects others near the wearer by filtering out the air that he or she exhales. The mask comes with a replaceable, two-stage filtering system that catches 99.97% of microscopic particles in the air, including viruses.

Nguyen hopes to design this mask so that it isn't just accepted by society in the midst of a pandemic, but so that it continues to be valued in a post-pandemic world. "If I can design an air mask that, regardless of people's opinions or beliefs about science, they like it so much that they wear it all the time, then I'll feel like I've succeeded," he says.

Will the innovative JustAir model be the future of designer face masks? Theranova expects medical workers and those in the transportation industry to be the first to adopt this new technology. But these futuristic masks are certainly poised to influence the cultural conversation surrounding masks, and eventually, make their mark in the fashion world.

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