Amid the coronavirus gloom afflicting many Hong Kong retailers, one business is bucking the trend – by offering colourful individualised facemasks to cheer up customers in a fashion-obsessed city.

Masklab, a Hong Kong-based mask production company, opened a bricks-and-mortar store in Jordan district last Saturday. Since then, thousands of people have flocked to the pop-up establishment on Nathan Road to purchase their unique brand of quality masks, available in an assortment of multi-coloured designs.

Masklab. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The official opening is not till early October but already there are constant queues. “We originally planned to open here for six months,” co-founder Albert Chen told HKFP. “But now it looks like we may be here for a year.”

Chen, who shuttles between the store and their factory in San Po Kong, said there had been a “mindblowing” response to the shop. “We’re so busy, we’re severely understaffed.”

The company served more than 5,000 customers in the first two days of its soft opening. “Now that’s one busy store!” one passer-by remarked.

‘Colourful and unique’

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong, demand for masks has surged. Since July, they have been mandatory in public places both indoors and outdoors.

To target what Chen calls the “PPE lifestyle” niche, Masklab masks are available individually-wrapped as well as in boxes of 50. After noticing that customers appreciated the products for their sartorial idiosyncrasies, Chen’s team decided to sell individual masks to cater to individual preferences. “It’s also for fashion more than medical necessity,” Chen said.

Masklab. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Masklab has streamlined its supply system to cater to demand. “Our design release cycle is very short thanks to our in-house mask printer which allows us to prototype mask designs very quickly,” Chen told HKFP.

The store currently offers masks in 60 different designs, ranging from sunset pastels to shark motifs.

“We believe masks are a new form of expression in this new normal,” Chen said. “So we have adopted a new paradigm of mask manufacturing which replaces the traditional homogenous mass production with smaller runs of various styles.”

Manufactured and designed in two-week cycles, the individually-wrapped masks also indicate to the team which designs are most popular, allowing them to quickly adapt to consumer demand.

Chen said he plans to use lessons learnt at the store to further develop the Masklab product. “I hope the store can act as a springboard for new designs,” he said, adding that the vibrant designs offer some “entertainment during such a difficult time.”

Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP.

The strategy seems to be working. When HKFP visited, there was a constant queue of shoppers buying basketfuls of both boxed masks and an assortment of individually-wrapped ones. “They’re so colourful and unique. I’m so bored of wearing the same masks every day,” one customer told HKFP.

The coronavirus, a SARS-like virus first detected in the Chinese province of Hubei at the end of last year, has become a global pandemic with over 970,000 deaths worldwide so far.

Made in Hong Kong

Masklab was established in March by Chen and his brother and father as a response to what they saw as a lack of local and trustworthy mask manufacturers.

“A lot of mass mask manufacturers were making masks with questionable material,” he told HKFP. “We wanted to make our masks in Hong Kong and we wanted to make it [the business] as transparent as possible.”

Co-founder Albert Chen. Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP.

The proprietors organised daily tours of their factory in San Po Kong in April for members of the public who signed up online. Although the city’s recent third wave of infections has forced a suspension of these tours, Chen said he hoped to resume them soon.

In a market inundated with masks, the Masklab team strove for superior quality. According to Chen, its lowest-grade masks still filter out 99 per cent of airborne particles.

Masklab’s status as a local brand is also fundamental. “It’s a big part of our vision, it’s important to us that we hire locally and operate on our own rather than importing from China.”

Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP.

Masklab’s commitment to quality, transparency and local manufacture has created a large fan base and online following. When asked whether it mattered that the masks were made in Hong Kong, several customers told HKFP it was a major consideration. “Of course it’s important,” one said. “We should support local businesses.”

New normal

Masklab, which initially operated as an online-only store, is a collaboration between Chen’s tech background and his father’s manufacturing business.

Its parent company, 3I Corporation, specialises in outdoor furniture and cushions, produced with a material similar to the plastic used in Masklab’s masks. The manufacturing know-how, coupled with Chen’s decade of e-commerce experience, meant the brand could quickly attract a growing fanbase both locally and internationally.

Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP.

Masklab ships internationally from its online store. In recent months, demand has grown, with orders coming in from Australia, the US and Taiwan.

However, uncertainty surrounds the US operation after President Donald Trump ordered that all imports from Hong Kong be labelled “Made in China.” From November onwards, Masklab will label its exports to the US as “Made in China, factory in Hong Kong” in an attempt to pass customs.

The company’s online presence has fuelled demand at its physical store. “I came to buy these masks because they used to only be available online. Now you can buy them in person,” one customer said.

Chen is aware of the environmental impact of disposable masks, saying that although they are made of polyester and polypropylene that is difficult to recycle, the company is working towards an environmentally-friendly solution. “We are developing reusable, protective and recyclable masks.”

Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP.

The Masklab factory currently produces about 100,000 masks daily but Chen said it was hard to predict how long business would boom. With mask-wearing becoming an ingrained habit amongst Hongkongers, he predicts it may last for at least for another year.

“We are taking this month by month,” he added. “We thought the pandemic would be over by now, but now it seems to be overtaking our main business.”

Ultimately, however, Chen looks forward to an end to face coverings. “Masks hopefully will no longer be necessary and we can return to normal.”

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Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.