The reason rap duo Ayo & Teo started sporting stylized surgical masks — in their videos and onstage — was not sartorial, though vanity did play a role. The pair, whose hit “Rolex” peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100, sought out masks after an Instagram follower asked why they scrunch up their mouths when they dance. Now, their cover-up of choice (Ayo, 20, prefers masks with a shark graphic, while 17-year-old Teo opts for a panda design) has birthed a fashion craze, and their own masks from Japanese cult brand Bathing Ape rarely come off. “Teo wears his in restaurants and will just have it hanging on his ear,” says Ayo. “The masks are a part of us.”
The summer festival circuit already has seen masks on display from 2 Chainz, Travis Scott and Young Thug. The lattermost’s Atlanta-based stylist, Zoe Dupree, selected a mask by tactical gear brand Airsoft Atlanta for the rapper to wear on Future’s Nobody’s Safe Tour. Future, in turn, wore a Swarovski one at the BET Awards in June (daughter Londyn wore a matching one). The masks provide a bit of mystery and cool, explains Dupree. “Artists can show an alter-ego,” he says. “It’s more of a performance, theatrical piece.”
Off-White designer Virgil Abloh, whose luxury streetwear label is worn by Celine Dion, Rihanna and Kanye West, expects the accessory to have a broader reach. For fall, he added graphic cotton masks at $68 each, and says that they almost instantly sold out. Says Abloh, “[Designing the masks] was a natural evolution, to relate to a new demographic.”
Dupree suggests that Asian “smog couture” pioneered the look, where pedestrians in congested cities don them to avoid inhaling toxins and spreading airborne viruses (although most medical research suggests over-the-counter masks aren’t effective filters). “They took a medical necessity and turned it into fashion,” he says. Park Jimin, member of K-pop boy band BTS, has adopted the look, wearing both plain surgical and black masks. The style has become so popular that there are BTS-branded black masks for sale on Amazon.com for $2.99.
Abloh will be adding more designs soon. Ayo & Teo’s forthcoming clothing line, W.A.Y. (We Are Young), will feature masks as well. “This is a new part of costuming, and you’ll see people doing new things with it,” says Dupree. “This is a trend that’s going to stay.”