Welcome or unwanted, face masks are here to stay as the new addition to our casual must-haves like keys, phones, and wallets. Is it possible to turn a mundane public health item into a mobile fashion statement? FashioNXT decided to test the talents of designers around the world working tirelessly to help our personalities shine while making the world a safer place. Oregon’s premier fashion platform hosted a 2020 FashioNXT Mask Design Competition. [Disclosure: I served as one of four pro-bono judges for this competition thanks to my viral coverage of the protective face mask design developments since March 2020.]  Among other judges were Mondo Guerra – Fashion Designer and Project Runway All Star Winner, Tra’Renee Chambers – Emmy Award Winner / KATU-TV Host, and iHeart Radio Portland Personality Ken Boddie-Anchor, KOIN TV/Channel 6.

Portland is known for its sustainability leadership and contemporary cool vibes. This year its unofficial motto could be summarized in one word: disruption. From early Covid-19 surges, Antifa movement, hazardous air conditions due to unprecedented wildfires, and President Trump’s bullying of the mayor, Portland and its people have withstood it all. According to Tito Chowdhury, FashioNXT’s Chief Executive & Founder, the competition has brought forth the missing creativity and camaraderie after the pandemic prevented the industry from coming together in-person to celebrate fashion this year.

“Portland’s contagious independence, artistic ethos, and hyper-progressive community have become its signature. At the core of sustainable design is the practice of lesser quantity, higher quality. We are looking to inspire consumers not to be drawn to disposable single-use practices,” said Chowdhury. FashioNXT is donating part of the mask auction proceeds to Oregon Health & Science University Hospital’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

When past becomes the future

Fashion isn’t canceled in quarantine! There is no doubt that history repeats itself and learning from the past is the only way to embrace the future. For the winner of the 2020 mask competition, designer Anna Bartoletti, inspiration came from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Drawn by the similarities between the people who lived over 100 years ago and our lives today, her designs are also inspired by vintage photos and family memorabilia documenting the events we are all experiencing. Then, putting a contemporary twist on it. “I was amazed at how many aspects repeated themselves, and how many of the same concerns of the past we have today,” said Bartoletti. “While there are so many people that willingly wear facemasks, there are also many people who do not.” Wearing a mask is a proven medical tactic in the best interest of everyone’s health. Yet, the recent anti-mask protests in Berlin and other cities, reminded Bartoletti of the “Anti-mask League” of 1918.

Her winning “Full Circle” design connects 1918 to 2020 and serves as a modern memento of the past. It’s avant-garde and abstract for the risk-takers, but it also holds a message that “there’s still hope in moments of sorrow and defeat.” Creating a mask is both an art and a science. Hand embroidered with a long line and arrows, this work represents Bartoletti’s belief that we’ve come a full circle. Printed on fabric pictures of old posters, vintage photos and news articles from the Spanish Flu Pandemic, it reminds all of us that humankind endured and survived pandemics before. “It’s meant to look innocent but juxtaposed with the hand-embroidered harsh words of the reality of what we are going through today, such as Black Lives Matter, Protests, Death, Pandemic, Politics,” said Bartoletti. All the words are embroidered in black, while a cross, daisy, and heart are embroidered in color to represent the presence of light in the darkness. Healing through fashion, literally.

“Anna’s design not only exhibits the functionality that masks require, but serves as a commentary regarding these challenging times. Brilliant in its simplicity and complexity,” said Boddie-Anchor.

Born and raised in New York, she has worked as a costume designer in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. Bartoletti is currently focused on becoming a socially conscious voice for issues she champions and growing her business sustainably. “With the whole world focused on everything being web-based and online right now, it is more important than ever for independent designers and small businesses to be seen,” said Bartoletti.

Unique stories to inform and inspire

The first runner-up, designer Camisha Jackson of the Lunaversoul brand referenced Afrofuturistic cultural aesthetic in her competition entry. Her personal journey to fashion wasn’t a straight line as she went from being a 3D graphic artist and illustrator at a video game company in Seattle to a jewelry designer that has been featured in Vogue and Essence and working with celebrities. “I don’t have a typical design process. I am self-taught, and everything I create is freestyle, random and unplanned,” said Jackson. “I don’t work from sketches; I just have big ideas in my head and a vivid imagination.” 

The top three designs were rounded out by Lauren Bruce-Lund whose inspiration was accessibility, safety, and visibility. Bruce-Lund has an autoimmune disease and a stepson with Muscular Dystrophy, so she has firsthand awareness of the real dangers and impact of COVID19 on vulnerable populations. “Before quarantine was implemented, I had been developing an athleisure collection that celebrates the body’s movement and form,” said Bruce-Lund. “I used those techniques to create a mask pattern that can remain completely sealed and in place while speaking – regardless of build, size, or facial hair.”

Something this pandemic has taught us is the importance of taking responsibility to protect ourselves first in order to help protect those around us. Her brand Alinea Atelier is working towards minimizing the anxiety around the pandemic and thus, her “Coloring Book” mask may serve as a fun useful tool. A dose of color and positivity are much needed commodities these days. The washable fabric markers allow the wearer to change mask design every time after it is laundered. With adjustable elastic options, the mask uses semi-reusable filters that work better than cotton alone. 

What’s next for the Oregonian fashion community?

In 2020, FashioNXT has offered optimized digital production services and virtual launch collections adapting to the designers’ affected capacity. The platform keeps sustainability conversations active throughout the year filled with so much uncertainty about the future. “We help fashion brands and fashion educational programs around world by sharing our 3-C expertise: Creativity, Community, and Commerce,” said Chowdhury. He recognizes how the lack of US-wide fashion infrastructure and networks “creates a considerable disservice to foster the growth of fashion talents from our country,” said Chowdhury. FashioNXT is aiming to be that agent of change at the local as well as global levels.

While the world remains on pause, fashionable face masks continue to dominate design conversations online and beyond. “In many countries, masks have been a part of everyday life for years, to protect against air pollution and spread of airborne diseases. I think masks are here to stay and to some extent continue to be a part of daily life for millions of people,” said Jackson. Not to be bored, we better keep giving it style makeovers!

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