Wendover Brown runs a boutique business in San Francisco selling hand-sewn face masks. Her patterned products are called Vogmasks (pronounced “vogue masks”). They are meant to look more like clothing than medical devices—cosmetically palatable respirators for people trying to avoid air pollution or allergens. Most months, Brown says, she sells a few thousand.
Last week she was shocked to get an order from Dubai for 100,000. That was one of several enormous requests from around the world, amid concerns about the new coronavirus.
Cheaper, standard surgical masks—the expandable rectangles of paper—are reportedly in short supply in many places, as are N95 respirators used in health-care settings—the cup-shaped devices that seal tightly to the face with elastic bands. (N95 is the designation used by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, indicating that a mask can block inhalation of 95 percent of airborne particles.) Even though Vogmasks carry no such formal certification, boutique suppliers like Brown are selling out as people grasp for longer-term, business-casual mask options.
Brown had to turn down those huge orders. “This isn’t what we do,” she says. “I have no ability to fill that kind of order.”