That little black mask sported around Beijing just might become the Olympic equivalent of the little black dress. The masks were designed and distributed by the U.S. Olympic Committee to help athletes manage the unique stew of pollution, heat and humidity that Beijing presents. The USOC has declined to discus in detail how they work or who made them.
But the manufacturer could be in for an unexpected sales boon, said one fashion expert, due to all the news generated when a group of U.S. Olympic cyclists arrived in Beijing wearing them, something they later profusely apologized for doing. "We deeply regret the nature of our choices," the cyclists said in a statement that noted the great lengths Olympic organizers have gone to in an effort to improve Beijing's notoriously terrible air quality.
Still, you can't put the cat back in the bag, so to speak.
"That image is in the air," said Jason Christopher, editor of the J.C. Report, a fashion blog that has followed the games closely. "Given the publicity [from athletes wearing the masks], I think it's likely we'll see brands rolling these out in multiple colors."
Mr. Christopher said lower-face coverings are showing up on runways with great frequency these days. The exposure for these sleek black masks, which he called "surprisingly" well designed, figures to further fuel that trend, which he said has already manifested itself in inner-city style and even in the controversial Dunkin' Donuts ad in which celebrity chef Rachael Ray was accused of wearing a keffiyeh.
If Greenpeace has its way, the smog mask might become the enduring statement of the Beijing Olympics, just as the Mexico City Olympics introduced to the world the black-power salute, Atlanta gave it Michael Johnson's golden Nikes and Sydney offered the bodysuit. A spokesman said the group is planning to use the games to raise concerns about domestic air issues, and the mask images could be of assistance. "It's a very powerful image," he said. "It's a symbol of something that is happening in this country as well."
The masks might surprise Americans, but are rather common in China, as are the now-ubiquitous shots of Beijing draped in billboard-obstructing smog, or "fog," as Chinese authorities call it. "Even with the low visibility, you can see [Olympic sponsors'] billboards as long as you're within a few blocks of them," reported Richard Burger, senior VP of Ketchum's Beijing office. "There's been fear for months about pollution during the games," added Mr. Burger. "The images of athletes arriving wearing face masks and stories of teams bringing in their own food have hurt the nation's pride. However ... the excitement over the games is irrepressible and I don't think a hazy sky will dampen that."
"I was surprised to hear the cyclists apologized, because, really, Chinese people wear masks all the time," said Marc Ganis, CEO of consultancy SportsCorp, which keeps an office in Beijing. "The people here know the air quality isn't very good and they aren't going to be offended by someone else pointing it out." contributing: laurel wentz