Face masks in hot pink satin, lace, turquoise brocade for US$25 and up – Maskela entrepreneur’s pivot from dress rental in pandemic pays off
Carol Chen was running a designer gown rental service in Singapore when the world shut down. Fancy frocks were the furthest thing from anyone's mind during the coronavirus pandemic, and Chen realised she had to quickly pivot her business.
Instead of stressing about how she was going to afford the rent on her 280 square metre (3,000 sq ft) space, she took a pair of scissors to a slightly damaged red sequinned gown - and made snazzy, stylish face masks.
"People loved it," said Chen. "This was at a time when masks weren't even mandatory, so the idea of making a high-end mask was crazy. I did think, 'Who's going to wear this?'."
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A lot of people, as it turns out.
The brand, Maskela, soon found its way onto the faces of celebrities such as US actress Sarah Jessica Parker (who wore a printed blue one) and Netflix reality show Selling Sunset's Chrishell Stause, who donned a sparkly gold number. Within a few months, Chen hit sales of US$100,000.
Today, Maskela masks are available in dozens of different styles - hot pink satin, black and gold lace, turquoise brocade - starting at US$25. There are bridal masks and even limited edition ones made from one-off cuts of fabric. There are kids' versions and bejewelled mask chains so they always stay close at hand, even when they're not on.
They come in pretty gift bags, and shoppers can even order an essential-oil-based mask sanitiser. Chen ships globally, the masks especially relevant now as the world starts to open up with faces still covered.
More than a year into the pandemic, Chen remains a passionate proponent of mask-wearing and says she realised the importance of it long before it was a common practice. She remembers walking into a private member's club in Singapore wearing a surgical mask (which, granted, she says looks like "you're wearing a diaper on your face") when the club's founder asked her to take it off.
"He said: 'This is a safe space for our members. If you're sick, go home. If you're scared, go home. I don't want masks in my club because you look scary'. Right after he told me to take off my mask, I decided I wanted to make one that doesn't make me look scary."
Maskela is the latest business for Chen, who is something of a serial entrepreneur. She was born in the US state of Colorado to Taiwanese immigrants, and raised in Dallas, Texas. After attending the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in San Francisco, California, she moved to Los Angeles to found her eponymous label, which was sold in 300 stores around the country.
In 2008, the US housing crisis hit - the boutiques she sold to went out of business and mega-fast-fashion empires, like Zara, rose to the fore. Chen closed her label and moved to Asia - she spent a few years running a clothing factory in Dongguan, China, and then followed a now-ex-boyfriend to Singapore, where she lived for six years.
The thriving social scene there led her to found her dress rental company, Covetella, where she had thousands of designer dresses in circulation that would be rented out for special events. Seventy of them ended up in various scenes from Crazy Rich Asians, and many can also be seen in the Netflix show Singapore Social .
After she came up with those first few masks, and just as the Singapore government announced lockdown measures, Chen says she went into overdrive.
"I scrambled for the next four days," she said. "While everyone was catching up with friends before going into quarantine, I was running around trying to buy sewing machines, fabric, packaging, everything I needed to start a business. I cut up more dresses. I built a website, rushed out to a tailor to get prototypes made, took the photos myself, and launched the business from my bedroom."
She had a staff of three crammed into her living room in a flat she shared with four other people, all also working from home. Once the business got going, Chen returned to Dallas, where she is now based.
Chen will continue to introduce more styles in keeping with her vision of making masks that have a good fit, are glamorous, breathable and make a fashion statement.
"I don't want people to worry: 'Oh, I have to wear this, and I don't want to'. There is something for every outfit. They're like shoes. You have to wear them, but they don't all have to be flip-flops."
The irony is not lost on her that she is now living in Texas, a US state that lifted its mask mandate in early March, and opened everything up 100 per cent.
"It's really unbelievable what we're dealing with here," she said. "A lot of people here don't believe in masks."
Last November, Chen won the designer of the year title from the Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore, for her thoroughly modern collection of special occasion wear featuring intricate laser cut and embroidery.
Part of the prize is a show during Paris Fashion Week in October, which will mark the official launch of the Carol Chen label. The upcoming collection, she says, will be her own "personal take on versatile evening wear that can be worn in different ways, experimenting with different fabrics, using 3D printing, and going a little bit more out of the box".
As of now, the show is expected to go on, and Chen will be dressing her models backstage - masked, of course.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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