Those reading Vogue.com might have been charmed by a recent story about Icelandic knitwear designer Ýr “Ýrúrarí” Jóhannsdóttir’s fantastical 3D tongue masks that feature long, curled tongues (think John Pasche’s Tongue and Lips logo for the Rolling Stones) popping out of teeth-baring faux mouths.
The designer has long been favoured by celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Erykah Badu for her chunky sweaters bearing the same motifs, but ever since Covid-19 became a global scourge and the wearing of face masks became de rigueur, she has been turning the utilitarian accessory into a quirky fashion statement.
Halfway across the world, avant-garde Malaysian milliner and accessories designer Bremen Wong shares the exact idea. “As designers, we are always inspired by our surroundings. This pandemic has inspired me to create an item that reflects our current situation. Seeing people struggle during this period motivated me to come up with a new line called The Collectors’ Series, with the first product being the mask. Items in this series will be sold with part of the proceeds going to charity on a long-term basis.”
It might be paradoxical to say so at first, but it is also heartening to know that raw, visceral beauty can emerge from a time of trouble. One look at Wong’s masks takes you on an immediate journey into a world of fantasy, although the Sabah-born designer states firmly that his main sources of inspiration remain architecture, sculpture and nature.
Crafted from acrylic powder — similar to clay or ceramic but not as fragile — and lighter than perspex, the masks are also wearable works of art, sublime pieces of sculpture that are rich in detail and emotion. “These dystopian masks are created to commemorate a historic moment in our lives,” he shares.
“As designers, we are always responding to situations in a creative manner and these masks are my creative expression in response to this pandemic. I received a message from a fan recently that made me so happy and grateful. He wrote saying how he imagined using a hollow frame … to display my mask if ever he purchased one, as a remembrance of hardship and beauty in the era of the novel coronavirus.”
Depending on the detailing and design, a single Bremen Wong Collectors’ Series mask can take weeks to make. Prices currently range from RM750 to RM980, although Wong lets on that he plans to offer a more affordable range, owing to the overwhelming number of enquiries he has been receiving.
“Many people love the masks, but I understand they can seem expensive. So, right now, sales have been mostly to overseas buyers. But I have also received so many special messages from people who have seen the mask designs. When strangers compliment my work, it energises me to keep moving forward to present the best of myself. I am very thankful for that.
“Even after the Movement Control Order is lifted completely, I am sure the mask will continue to be an important entity in our everyday lives. In fact, it will be a necessity until a vaccine is found and made readily available. In a way, just like how sunglasses and hats have evolved from serving as sun protection to must-have fashion accessories, masks may be the same.
“There are now countless options to choose from. I already see so many businesses — big and small — taking the opportunity to make and sell cloth face covers, with a wide range of styles and designs readily available. I am also seeing a lot of people not just wearing cloth face coverings, but also taking the opportunity to make a design or fashion statement as they do so, particularly overseas.
“So, whether it’s in the mask design you choose or the way you wear it — there is a popular debate now about whether ear loops or clasps behind the head work better — take the opportunity to make a statement while protecting yourself and others in style.
“As for me, I shall keep staying positive and creating, doing the things I like. Most people don’t realise the immense amount of time required in the business of art. I have to fight for every moment I can spend in the studio. It is a privilege. And a great pleasure.”
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This article first appeared on May 18, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.