Last week the independent queer fashion brand Marek + Richard began selling a small collection of face masks as a part of a new "Quaran-Time" themed campaign. For shoppers using the code 6FEET, which refers to the Centers of Disease Control recommended social distancing guidelines amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, the company was giving 30% off their entire site. But on social media the non-medical grade fashion masks, which sport words like "Cumwhore," "Daddy," and "Mask 4 Mask" were the center of criticism, as Out reported Friday. Now, Robbie Richard, President and CEO of Marek + Richard Apparel Group, has addressed the collection in an email interview with Out.
"As a brand we try to filter things through a campy and sometimes comedic lens to hopefully brighten somebody’s day or distract them from the chaos surrounding us at the moment," Richard writes to Out. "We try not to take ourselves too seriously. But in these uncertain times we as a small queer business are doing everything we can to keep our employees paid and are incredibly grateful for the continued support from the community."
Much of the criticism of the company's masks revolved around the fact that they were inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic. Caused by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 is a sometimes fatal respiratory disease currently ravaging the globe. Marek + Richard's mask — the brand had made masks before — are a spin on this, given that masks are required for use for medical professionals and encouraged for use by others who may have to go out and interact with the public. There is currently a shortage of the masks in the United States, leading many, including Out, to criticize the move.
In response to the criticism, the label double-downed on social media. "Help us 'profit off a pandemic!!'" they wrote in a post that was shared across the brand's Twitter and Instagram accounts as well as the couple's personal Instagram. Those terms were notably used in Out's first report. "For those of you trying to come for small queer businesses just trying to keep the lights on- there are much larger targets that are worth your time and energy."
"Slow your roll and stop with the death threats," the message continued. "There are already people dying!" After searching the brand's Facebook page, Twitter account, and Instagram account, Out was not able to confirm these alleged threats. Out could also find no publicly available tweets mentioning, responding to, or quote tweeting the Marek + Richard account that included the threats. Richard did not respond to Out's request for screenshots of the alleged messages.
With many in the U.S. under self-quarantine, many businesses are impacted. In particular, brands like Marek + Richard, who make their money in economies around large events like music festivals like South by Southwest, Coachella, and EDC, are some of the hardest hit. And though some are saying these new masks are in poor taste, they are selling out and "helping to somewhat offset the largest decrease in sales we've ever experienced."
"Even in this era of shelter in place, we want to give our customers a chance to express their queer identity and strut their stuff in a living room fashion show for their social media feed," Richard writes. "In an effort to remind customers about social distancing, we have created a special discount code: 6FEET for 30% off marekrichard.com."
But there are undoubtedlly other ways to "express your queer identity" or "strut your stuff in a living room fashion show" than essentially turning worldwide death into a kitschy punchline.
Many have asked whether the label is donating to any efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19 given the hyper specific marketing.
"We haven’t done the best at publicizing it, but we are currently donating masks to places that will accept them in the Dallas/Ft Worth area," Richard writes. The label is based in Texas. "Without the prints of course! We talked about making a financial donation as well, but funds are tight for everyone right now. Especially after the tornado destroyed our warehouse, studio and home in October, it has been a struggle to rebuild the brand and give our 3 remaining, hardworking employees a steady paycheck. And while [Small Business Association] loans sound like an easy fix, in all actuality, there are many hoops to jump through and many aren’t able to qualify. At the end of the month, once all of our employees and their families are taken care of, a financial donation is something we plan to revisit."
Richard did not respond to questions asking for specific names of places masks had been donated or would be donated to.
And what about taking advantage of a globally fatal pandemic by utilizing what is a lifesaving garment, simply for its aesthetics as a fashion garment?
"I think it’s difficult to characterize any small business as profiting at the moment and most of us are struggling to barely break even, but we understand the severity of the situation and have family and friends who are currently sick," Richard writes. "My dad passed away last year from an extended pneumonia caused by the common flu so we understand the dangers of communicable disease. As a brand we try to filter things through a campy and sometimes comedic lens to hopefully brighten somebody’s day or distract them from the chaos surrounding us at the moment. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. But in these uncertain times we as a small queer business are doing everything we can to keep our employees paid and are incredibly grateful for the continued support from the community."
Multiple designers that Out has consulted confirm that the construction of these masks would do very little to stop the spread of the virus, not even measuring up to some of the minimum standards.