Imagine that instead of slathering a slimy sum of sunscreen on your face at the beach this year, you slip on the equivalent of a coverup--for your entire head.
The item, known as a "facekini," which has been making the rounds on television and social media in the past few weeks and resembles a Mexican wrestling mask, is a stretchy, often colorful garment with holes for your eyes, nose, and mouth. It's marketed as a consistent way to protect skin from the harmful effects of sun exposure and also guard against jellyfish stings and insect bites. But will it catch on in the U.S.?
Gregory delNero thinks so. When the San Francisco-based entrepreneur came across images of the garment turning heads on Chinese beaches in 2012, he was immediately intrigued.
"I found that there were many clothing and hat solutions for covering the body from the sun, but not many specifically for the face that provided constant protection," he says. The face cover seemed like a practical solution. DelNero teamed up with a partner and, while still working a day job, began selling his version of the garment, which he dubbed the "facekini," a term he had trademarked in the U.S. in 2013. He sells various versions of the facekini at his online shop for $18 to $20 apiece.
While the entrepreneur declined to disclose sales figures, he says success is around the corner, pointing to the garment's popularity overseas and its sun protection perks.
"Freckles, sunburn, and peeling skin were a part of being a kid, and pasty sun protection was uncool," says the 47-year-old founder, who grew up in Southern California. "Now, a few decades and several biopsies later, skin cancer is a major cause of concern for me, and when I look at my body, my sun-scarred skin is an embarrassing reminder."
With several versions swimming around, it's difficult to pinpoint the first iteration of this kind of full-coverage swim mask in history, but buzz about the facekini has been circulating for years.
DelNero says he stumbled across old images of people showing off facekini-like products from as far back as the 1920s, but also among his finds is a still from the 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard that shows Gloria Swanson's character Norma Desmond getting a beauty treatment with a mask that resembles the facekini.
According to The New York Times, the garment has particularly appealed to middle-aged women in China, where fair and undamaged skin has become a symbol of a higher social status.
There, the garment really took off, after first being introduced over a decade ago by Zhang Shifan, a former accountant living in Qingdao, China, who says she invented her face masks in 2004. Between 2014 and 2015, the entrepreneur told Reuters, she sold about 30,000 masks, and in a separate interview, she told CNN she sold more than 20,000 in the summer of 2016.
Versions of the garment are sold by various sellers on multinational e-commerce sites owned by Alibaba, where 40,000 were sold in June of this year alone. According to the company, 55 percent of those buyers were male, 40 percent were post-'90s Millennials, and 39 percent were post-'80s Millennials.
The full-coverage concept has also garnered attention from the fashion elite. In 2014, it was featured in a photo shoot for the French magazine CR Fashion Book after catching the eye of its editor in chief, Carine Roitfeld, a former Vogue Paris editor. In 2016, the trend also made an appearance in D, la Repubblica's weekly style magazine.
Chinese women model the sixth-generation "facekini" designs on a beach in Qingdao City. pic.twitter.com/g5i0CX9t7E-- SERIOUSLY STRANGE (@SeriousStrange) October 22, 2016
Not So Scary
Naturally, the garment isn't for everyone. And as Shifan told Reuters in 2015, it has a serious drawback: Adults wearing them may scare children.
In response, she introduced several lines of more approachable designs: embroidered and porcelain-inspired patterns, the likenesses of endangered animals, and versions imitating traditional face-painting inspired by China's Peking opera, China Global Television Network reported.
DelNero says he's also sensitive to this aspect of the garment, but he's never met anyone who's been scared by the facekini. "New styles and trends come out all the time, and some are pretty odd at first, but in time, nothing seems all that surprising or shocking to me anymore due to the exposure from the internet and news."
He's hopeful that the quality of his product will help it stand out and increase awareness of the importance of skin cancer prevention. DelNero's facekinis, made of nylon and Lycra, block 99.8 percent of UVA and UVB rays not only on the face but also down the neck and back--areas sometimes missed with sunscreen, delNero says. The fabric is tested in an independent lab in the U.S. to ensure it meets or surpasses accepted skin safety standards.
His biggest challenge is getting the U.S. market to see the item as more than a novelty.
"Even though sun protective clothing is a growing category right now, with brands like the Gap's Athleta and Lululemon Athletica hopping on board, there is a reason the facekini hasn't taken off," says Gabriella Santaniello, the CEO and founder of A Line Partners, an independent retail consultancy based in Los Angeles. "Americans live in a selfie culture," she says. "We'd do everything to protect our face but cover our face. The skin care industry isn't an $11 billion industry for nothing."
DelNero, however, is undeterred. "When I wear my facekini out in public, people stare and giggle because they've never seen anyone wearing a facekini." But that's not necessarily a bad thing. "People love to take photos [of] them."