Forget rockin’ Chelsea boots, oversized tees and skinny jeans – air masks were the one accessory missing from London Fashion Week Men’s SS18 street style. But as the capital’s air quality continues to deteriorate, it’s shaping up to be this season’s must-have item.
Air masks are having a moment as designers try to tackle what the World Health Organisation calls the ‘single biggest environmental health risk’ – attributing 4.3 million deaths in 2012 to toxic air. M90, an ‘urban air mask’ by Swedish designers Airinum, looks more Stella McCartney than surgical mask, while Airmotion Laboratories has partnered with Kilo on a modular ultra-protective air mask for kids, which looks like something straight out of a sci-fi movie.
Campaigners Clean Air Now are also changing the face of environmental fashion, recently working with some of the capital’s rising grime stars to raise awareness after it emerged that busy sites in the capital including Brixton Road in Lambeth, Oxford Street, the Strand and Putney High Street had already broken or were about to break their annual limit after just five days.
In Beijing, couture masks have become a regular feature on the catwalk, and designer Zhijung Wang is winning plaudits for his upscale designer sneakers turned working air masks, while masks are the latest fashion trend to emerge in Delhi. In China the air pollution is so bad people regularly avoid going outside and the wealthy are even buying bottled air from abroad.
Earlier this year, London Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted warnings to people with lung or heart problems to avoid outdoor activities. City Hall has promised drastic measures to prevent pollution getting worse across the capital to avoid an estimated 10,000 deaths each year due to toxic air, by expanding ultra-low-emission zones and investing in greener public transport.
According to the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, the costs to society of air pollution are akin to those from smoking and obesity, while the links to other illnesses, including diabetes and cancer, are only now being understood. To mark the first National Clean Air Day, Londoners are being encouraged to send photos of themselves acting sustainably for the chance to win prizes and even be featured in a United Nation’s exhibition.