Gwyneth Paltrow posted an Instagram photo Monday on her way back from her local farmer’s market. In it, she’s wearing a black dress and a matching black face mask. Her label of choice for the latter is a Swedish company called Airinum AB.
Designer face masks have been around for at least a decade, a niche market catering to the chronically sick along with frequenters of Burning Man and fashionistas in Beijing. Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, they are a coveted accessory for wealthy people around the globe. And for others, they’re a new symbol of inequality at a time when protective equipment for medical workers is in woefully short supply.
Airinum and other popular makers of trendy masks, including Cambridge Mask Co. and Vogmask, typically sell products in an assortment of colors and sizes and tout advanced air filtration and memory foam fitting for the wearer’s nose. Unlike paper masks often used by health care professionals, these can be washed and reused.
The products are normally priced at $12 for a basic black Cambridge mask or as much as $69 for a pearl pink Airinum. But those two companies are out of stock until at least next month. Airinums have sold for more than $200 apiece on eBay in the last week and Vogmasks for about $150 on average.
EBay, Amazon and other online retailers have come under pressure for enabling sellers to price gouge on essentials like masks and hand sanitizers. In response, the companies said they would ban such listings. The high-end masks exist in something of a gray area because they’re luxury products by design.
In the eyes of government officials, though, they’re still masks. San Francisco-based Vogmask manufactures all of its products in South Korea, which enacted an export ban this month on medical masks. Wendover Brown, the company’s co-founder, said 80,000 finished and packaged products are waiting in a warehouse near Incheon, unable to pass through customs. “The product is just sitting there, not helping anyone,” Brown said. Vogmask is now exploring options to manufacture in the U.S.
The global mask shortage is a severe problem for medical staff. Apple and Facebook are among companies helping source and donate masks to hospitals, and officials have urged people not to hoard them. Christian Siriano, a prominent fashion designer, and the French workshops of Balenciaga started producing masks to shore up supplies for health care workers.
It’s in this light that Paltrow’s pandemic glamor shot attracted some outrage. In comments on the post, several people chastised the actress for being tone-deaf and urged her to donate the mask to a health care worker and advocate for others to do so. “Medical staff have been begging people to contribute these,” one person wrote. “These should only be available to those on the front lines.”
A spokeswoman for Paltrow declined to comment. On Wednesday, Paltrow posted on Instagram saying she and her husband had donated to the Frontline Responders Fund, which is raising $10 million to get critical supplies to workers combating the virus.