Sydneysiders Elias Honor, his brother Isaac and their childhood friend Jack Graham had a vision of selling Australia’s air to the world.
The company they founded, AusAir, have made high-end anti-pollution face masks featuring filters infused with Australian botanicals such as eucalyptus and Tasmanian lavender. In shades of shell pink, black and grey, AusAir’s masks have a soft yet utilitarian aesthetic – like something you might find on the Starship Enterprise.
After winning a series of student entrepreneurship awards, the trio’s masks are set to go on sale for the first time this month. But rather than being a pristine fantasy for those in polluted metropolises overseas to inhale, Australia may become an important market for the fledgling company.
As unprecedented bushfires continue to rage across Australia’s eastern and southern coasts, towns and cities across the country have recorded multiday stretches of hazardous air quality.
Hardware chain Bunnings has air-freighted in hundreds of thousands of face masks and respirators from international suppliers in order to keep up with demand. While many consumers are visiting their local hardware stores in order to acquire PM2.5 filtering face masks, others are looking online for a more comfortable, longer-wearing and stylish solution.
In Sydney, Scott Mitchell was an early adopter. He purchased an anti-pollution face mask online on 3 December. “My friends would tell you that I am very quick to … jump on a fad,” he says. “The idea of buying a mask appealed to me because it seemed very dumb at the time.”
Mitchell took strange pleasure in researching his purchase. “It’s quite funny to get into the very small world of fashion face masks because the websites are trying to make something that is horrific seem quite appealing … There is a certain Blade Runner-y feeling of embracing our fashionable dystopia that I enjoyed.”
Eventually he settled on a respirator from Cambridge Mask Co. At A$48 plus shipping, the mask is lower cost than many other designer masks. Mitchell found the brand’s extensive range of colours and prints appealing too, although his first choice – a shade of deep teal – was sold out.
Cambridge Mask Co’s chief operating officer Nina Griffee explains that the range of colours isn’t about creating a product that’s “fashionable”. She says fine particle-filtering face masks can look quite militaristic but “by adding colour you can convince a five-year-old to wear a mask.” The masks were originally developed for residents of highly polluted cities, where “you don’t have one mask you have three or four,” says Griffee. When wearing a face mask is commonplace “it’s nice if it matches your coat”.
As the days of poor air quality stretched on across swathes of eastern and southern Australia, what started as almost a joke became “really handy and helpful” for Mitchell. Those who’d mocked him started to see sense in his decision. People even asked him for advice on social media, where he’d shared photographs of himself wearing the mask.
‘I look like a ninja’
Around the time Mitchell was making his purchase, Katherine Brickman, who also lives in Sydney, was suffering from “a smoker’s cough that turned into a respiratory infection” and realised “I needed some way of commuting to work without getting sick”.
Brickman consulted with a co-worker – “a real fashion kid” – who was already wearing a mask, and then researched the health recommendations that had come out during the California wildfires of 2018. She decided there was “no point in wearing one that’s not comfortable”, and eventually bought a mask from Swedish company Airinum. She describes their website as “the Apple store of face masks”, and says she found their extensive fit information and video tutorials particularly persuasive.
Airinum masks start at US$69. Brickman says “the one I got was slightly pricey, but I felt I could justify that cost because I can wash it and reuse it”.
The mask delivered on the promise of comfort, to some extent. “It has padding around the nose. It’s as comfortable as you would expect a face mask to be. You get the warm air of your breath as you exhale on your face. That’s not pleasant.” However, she adds, “I get so comfortable wearing it I sometimes almost go to drink coffee through it.”
Originally Brickman hoped for a mask that would not look “too threatening”. She opted for a simple black and laments: “It’s threatening … I look like a ninja.”
Face masks meet fashion
Meo, a New Zealand-based anti-pollution mask manufacturer who use a wool filtration system, have a particularly bold fashion offering. They collaborated with one of New Zealand’s biggest designers, Karen Walker, on a range of air masks that have interchangeable covers, featuring bird prints, filagrees and shooting stars. A representative for Karen Walker says Meo recently experienced “a spike in sales in Australia across their range”.
Griffee, who is based between Hong Kong and Perth, says the demand for Cambridge Mask Co’s product in Australia has been unprecedented. “This took everyone by surprise … since customs have been busy over Christmas, we’re having stock problems at the moment,” although she adds they will have product back in stock on Amazon Australia over the next few days. Griffee has noticed “unfortunately some opportunists will buy 10 or 20 masks and list them on Amazon for $100”. She is dismayed by these acts of scalping, saying “It’s not good behaviour … This is not a time when people should be profiteering. We hope to have this problem fixed as soon as possible.”
Jack Graham has also seen an uplift in inquiries from Australian residents since the bushfire crisis started. “People just want to know when they can get them.”
He says while it has been “an opportunity”, it is not one he relishes. “We took the air in Australia for granted,” he says, explaining that the idea for the company was born out of the founders’ appreciation for returning to fragrant Sydney air after trips overseas. Lately they’ve been wearing their own prototypes because of the smoke. “Coming back to Australia was always refreshing for us. We lived near the bush, so we always had that clean air … That’s changed.”
Tips for would-be mask wearers
Fit is key: The websites of most air filtration masks feature comprehensive fit information. Pay close attention because if the mask does not seal properly on your face, it will not protect against fine particles and it will not be comfortable.
Wear it tight: “It’s more comfortable when it’s tighter,” says Scott Mitchell. “I’d recommend anyone to really strap that thing in.”
Avoid lipstick: Katherine Brickman says she learned that tip the hard way.
Say no to scalpers: Nina Griffee says Cambridge Mask Co’s products retail at A$48 – if you spot their masks at a higher price, it is an unauthorised reseller.
Keep it clean: One of the appeals of Airinum’s masks, for Brickman, was the carry case they came in. “That way it wasn’t getting dirty at the bottom of my handbag.” While other masks, including Meo’s, also come with carry pouches, any small drawstring bag should do.
Pair with small-framed sunglasses: Good face masks tend to sit quite high on the bridge of your nose, making larger sunglasses uncomfortable to wear.
Smile with your eyes: Learning to communicate warmth in new ways helped Brickman get over her self-consciousness about wearing a mask. That, and the fact that “when you get into the city everyone’s wearing them”.