A sweeping pandemic has put a mask on everyone’s face in 2020. Face-coverings becoming the new norm has also sparked creativity in the fashion industry. Sonia Smith-Kang, a critical care nurse turned fashion designer, creates art masks for people to express and proudly show off their cultures.
Smith-Kang is the founder of Mixed Up Clothing, a clothing line focused on diversity and inclusion. Like her other apparel, her masks are designed with cultural element prints and made with fabrics ethically sourced from around the world.
Piling through her mask collections, you can see prints representing many cultures—silhouettes of kimonos in different vibrant colors, white hibiscus flowers against a mint blue base, colorful Japanese kokeshi dolls on a black background, and other prints. Smith-Kang wants everyone to find a mask that represents their identities.
When sourcing fabrics, it is important for Smith-Kang to understand the fabrics as well as the people who make the fabrics. Smith-Kand said that she draws on her multicultural heritage and her diverse team at Mixed Up Clothing. For her, it all comes down to mindfulness and respect for cultures.
The fabric masks also have elastic ear-loops, an adjustable nose wire, and a pouch in the back to insert a HEPA filter—Smith-Kang took advantage of her medical background while designing them. The masks are fully cotton woven for them to be breathable and withstand laundering. For every mask a customer buys, the brand donates one for people in need. So far, they have donated over a thousand face masks to the vulnerable populations.
Smith-Kang’s passion for culture derived from her own background. Born in Puerto Rico to an African American father and a Mexican mother, Smith-Kang spent most of her childhood in Hawaii before moving to Los Angeles. Growing up, she always had a hard time relating to people around her.
“I had curly hair, brown eyes, and a deeper skin tone – I looked so different from everyone else.” She said growing up, she never really saw anyone who looked like her, especially in the fashion industry. Her experience sparked her interest in culture and diversity from the start.
Even when she was a critical care nurse, one of the things she always enjoyed in the hospital was discussing diversity and culture with her colleagues. She was curious to know about the relationship between health and culture, recovery rate, and race, among other things. This curiosity has turned her into an activist – she serves as the President of Multiracial Americans of Southern California, an organization that aims to advocate for the multiracial community.
Smith-Kang started her clothing line, Mixed Up Clothing when she had children with her Korean-American husband. Her multiracial family further solidified her passion for expressing culture with her work.
“I lived an intentional life where I wanted artwork, food, music, and books to reflect our multicultural reality,” Smith-Kang said as she talked about giving her children a more comprehensive cultural experience in their day-to-day lives.
Smith-Kang decided to build her own brand in 2011. When the pandemic broke out, she knew from the get-go that there was going to be a shortage in protective gear. Her husband works as a critical care doctor in a local hospital in Los Angeles, which further motivated her to step up and switch gears to mask-making—even before CDC’s recommendation to wear masks and California’s mandatory face-covering order.
Her masks have received a lot of positive feedback. Many parents also wrote in and said they loved that her masks had sizes for children. Smith-Kang said that she wanted to help kids that had anxiety wearing a mask – so the team made sure the fabrics were bright and fun.
Susan Yahiro Asklipiadis is one of her buyers who decided to use her mask to make a statement about racism. “I’m proud of my Asian heritage and picked a Japanese pattern despite the current acts of hatred happening to Asian Americans,” she said. “ My fabric choice reflects my action to not back down.”
Smith-Kang is also a part of a project called Sewing Circle, hosted by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Over the course of this project, 18 artists, artisans, and museum staff members sewed 1,500 masks for local organizations in need.
She hopes that during the anxiety-inducing pandemic, her masks can bring comfort to people. “For a lot of us, culture brings us a sense of security.” Smith-Kang said, “We want people to carry that sense of security in a physical mask.”
Smith-Kang said the pandemic has also shifted the fashion industry in a palpable way. According to Vogue Business, from big department stores to small design businesses, millions of jobs were lost and many are struggling to keep their necks above water. Uniqlo, Old Navy, Outdoor Voices, American Eagle along with many other brands have also started making fabric masks.
Smith-Kang thinks this shift is a good opportunity for entrepreneurs to be more creative and inclusive. “The key is to genuinely listen to what people from different cultures have to say,” she said.