The COVID19 Pandemic has taught me more about face-masks than living in the terribly polluted air of the National Capital Region in India. We were ( in my household ), wearing N99 and N95 masks, at least for the last couple of years. We even purchased indoor air-purifiers for three of the most frequented rooms in our apartment.
I was not overly panicky about the availability of masks when there were none available anywhere – online or offline. Or when the ones available were selling at at least five times their original MRP in the “black” market. I already had a stash of N99s in my store room. I shared a few of those masks with my parents & we had enough to last us another year of pollution. But not enough to last us through the pandemic. Since the pandemic is much more immediate and serious, the way I was using masks for air pollution, was not going to be enough.
The world’s leading scientists and doctors are still figuring out what is happening with COVID19. It is no surprise that we are also, still, figuring out, what to do with our lives. Should we be wearing an N99 at all times? Will an N95 with the outlet valve be allowed? Why are there so many gaps in those blue surgical masks? Should the cotton mask have 2 layers or 3 layers? Shall I just wrap a stole around my face instead of wearing a mask? Etc.
Masks have now been turned into a fashion statement. Having read both sides : those who hate masks being turned into a fashion statement and those who are capitalizing on masks being turned into a fashion statement : I get both sides and decided to place myself in the latter group of people.
Like pretty much everyone else in the world, my bottom-line wasn’t just hurting – I had no bottom-line at all. 90% of my revenue stream used to be photography. And this was entirely gone during the lockdown. It looks like it’s going to stay gone for a while. And even when it comes back, it’s going to be in bits and pieces and at much smaller budgets than I’m used to.
I am still able to utilize my talent and skill for painting. My hand-painted wearable art brooches have done exceptionally well – in terms of me thinking that I was painting them for myself, to me getting about 60 orders in the first 12 months of operations. It has been a small and slightly unsteady stream of income.
The other revenue stream option was my Brand Building / Social Media Workshops. The whole world was on Zoom and it seemed like the perfect time for me to take my on-ground workshops and consulting practice, online. Which I did. This too has been a small and slightly unsteady stream of income.
One of my younger friends suggested that I needed to get back to focusing on one big thing and then also look at additional revenue streams. I have not been able to do this yet, since both my art and consulting practices are much newer compared to my 16 year photography practice. I’m hoping that photography will continue to be my main focus when things get back to a bit more normal.
Until then, I’m exploring painting on a variety of surfaces, including masks. I buy the pre-stitched masks from a design studio that employs women artisans in Delhi. I then paint them in various colors using the same impressionist / dots style that I used on a series of brooches.
I launched Flower Doctor and Rust Peacock first and newsletter subscribers got dibs on an almost 50% pre-order pricing. Over the last 3-4 days, I have shipped out all the pre-orders and also some of the newer orders. I have also started sending out masks as gifts to some of those who have helped me, some of my friends, some editors and some art industry leaders.
Once I receive an order notification from my online store, only then do I start painting the mask. The mask is washed at several stages during the creation process and when I ship it out to customers, I mention, several times, to please wash the mask once more prior to use.
There is no medical or scientific certification that is being claimed with these masks of mine. I’m not even claiming that they are “breathable”. When I wear them, sometimes I can breathe through the mask and sometimes I breath in and out, parallel to my face. I prefer the latter because it means that I am not breathing directly onto a person in front of me. This does fog up my glasses whenever I wear them.
It has been a meandering journey trying to figure out what fabric to use for the mask : I’m currently using 100% Cotton Poplin. The fabric needed to be sturdy enough to last a while – the masks are re-usable and hand-washable. The fabric also needed to be smooth enough to allow me to apply paint evenly but not so smooth that it would not hold the paint.
Thankfully, I have already been using paints that are certified non-toxic and UV resistant by European Standards. Mainly ASTM. But I am soon going to run out of these paints since international shipping is still quite unreliable and slow.
Then there was the question of the elastic band. I wanted to keep it simple but I also wanted good quality elastic to be used. This one is a commonly-available elastic in the Indian market. It is considered to be of “good” quality. There is an option to create a cloth cover on top of the elastic band but I decided against it because the bulk around my ears just makes them hurt more. And it would have been even more expensive to create that cloth cover.
And all this was after I had ordered a few masks and had been sent a few ( as PR gifts ) and I found myself scrunching up my nose at the terrible stitching or how easily the fabrics frayed after one wash or the flimsy quality of the elastic bands or the coarse texture of the cloth. With most masks, I found that they got at least ONE thing right but everything else was just ok, if I’m being generous. There was just one mask, which showed potential and I reached out to them to see if they would agree to supplying me with small quantities. I wanted not more than 10 pieces to begin with. Thankfully, it worked out well for the launch of my masks. Due to small numbers and negligible budgets, I have not yet managed to figure out fabric colours other than the white and the rust that I’m already using.
The one thing that I did not have to worry about – especially for Domestic orders – was shipping. Via my account with Instamojo, I have an account setup with VamaShip, where I can use the dashboard and ship to wherever I want, within India. International orders took a while to open up during the lockdown and are finally back on and as ridiculously expensive as before.
Below : painting in progress of the best-seller : Flower Doctor. The first set of -pre-ordered masks to be painted and shipped.
The initial set of masks also included a plain rust colored 100% Cotton Poplin and a black elastic band. I had a hard time coming up with color combinations that worked with this rust. And the one that I finally did come up with, got weird reactions from friends and acquaintances that I showed it to. I almost did not put it up on my store. Until I did and Rust Peacock turned out to have buyers! It looks GREAT when worn instead of when it’s laid flat on a surface.
I was trying really hard to stay away from gold on any of my masks because the paint doesn’t end up as bright and shiny on fabric as I would like. Much shinier on my brooches, where the varnish accentuates the refractive index. But then I was experimenting and made up a way to get SHINY SHINY gold onto fabric, without impeding the breathability of the fabric! That’s how “Weddings To Attend” and “I’m Golden” were created.
Packaging was not very complicated. I already had access to wrapping material that does not stick to paint, which I double wrapped each mask in. It then went into a clear plastic packet, alongwith a hand-written note card and a flyer from my exhibition in Feb-March. This packet then gets wrapped with either bubble wrap or any other thick, protective material that I have available. And then it gets put into these light pastel blue plastic courier bags, which also have a transparent pocket where I put in the shipping details ( which are generated by VamaShip and I take a print out at home ).
And that is how my hand-painted wearable art mask empire was born! Haha. Just kidding. I have yet to break even. Pandemics aren’t really a good time to sell fashion statements but, at the same time, I could not have possibly thought of selling hand-painted masks in India, before the pandemic. There was zero market for it. At least now there’s a market for it and I just have to find the right discerning art client for my masks.
I think I have already used the Made In India hashtag to death on each of my social media platforms. And Made In India by an independent artist : me. It is, literally, wearable art! Which is another hashtag I’ve used to death and will continue to use – so it’s not really death yet 😛
These are pretty masks. Not medical or healthcare items, as Instagram erroneously believes. You can wash these masks, but do not iron them because the paint will stick to the iron and peel right off from the mask. You can, however, blow dry these masks. Wear a mask when you go out. Whether you wear one of mine or something else, WEAR ONE.
Shop mine now!
Modeling for my masks : Adete Dahiya.
Each mask is a unique painting. No two will be the same, even if you order two together.
Thank you for reading through! If you are wearing one of my masks, please PLEASE do share a photo with me! I will only re-share on social media if you consent to it, but otherwise I would LOVE to see my customers wearing my art!
If you’re looking to place a large order, please email me on [email protected] and I will get back to you with a quote.