At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, fashion designer Chelsea Klukas of Lumen Couture was planning to make some standard cloth face masks for friends. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing homemade face coverings to prevent the spread of the virus.
Lumen Couture has an entire line of tech-enabled fashion, including dresses, hoodies, and costumes, and Klukas shifted to masks when in-person events were being canceled and sales for other products were slumping. She decided to add the tech to make the face masks a little more fun.
“I had the components around, so I put together a quick DIY YouTube tutorial for how to make them,” Klukas said in an interview with The Verge. “That really blew up, to the point where people were asking me for a ready-to-wear mask.”
She added that she didn’t want to appear to be trying to profit from the pandemic, so Lumen Couture donated proceeds from sales of the mask through June— about $5,000— to the World Health Organization COVID-19 relief fund.
Customers who are buying the masks are a completely different demographic from her usual clientele, Klukas adds, and she’s seen more male customers than she expected, most of whom would not describe themselves as fashionistas.
She adds that she thinks having masks anyone can wear will help make them a statement wardrobe item. “I think we are seeing the introduction of mask-wearing as a new form of expression. Other fashion designers are picking up on this too, I think we will start to see like the Rolex version of masks.”
The LED Display mask has a thin LED matrix screen, and wearers can control what it displays — drawings, custom text, and even voice inputs— via an app. The fabric is breathable above and below the screen, and the tech components can be removed so the mask can be washed, or worn as a regular mask. A battery and charging cord are included.
The app offers a microphone input, and some wearers use it to display social distancing messages— like “stand back” or “6 feet”— that might be difficult to hear someone say with their mouth covered.
The trickiest part of designing clothing with LED lighting components is where and how to conceal the batteries, Klukas said. “There are a few tricks where you can hide in a dress with a fluffy skirt, for example,” she said, “but if you want to do something sleek and skintight it’s more of a challenge.”
The masks have been her best-selling item by far, but Klukas says she can’t wait to get back to in-person shows, where people can touch and experience the LED-enhanced clothing in person. “Especially with some of the more adventurous pieces, people will come up close to see the magic, and it’s hard to show that through video,” she said. “The person wearing the fashion is part of the story, and it doesn’t convey the story as well on a flat screen.”