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David Manuel models one of his father’s mask designs. Photo: David Manuel.

Mandatory masks for COVID-19 mean new business for B.C. family

A family’s story of coming together and getting creative with non-medical face masks

By Katarina Sabados , in City , on December 14, 2020 Tags: , , , , , , , ,

University of British Columbia student David Manuel and his parents’ mask-making Etsy business has given the family a chance to come together during COVID-19 and tap into their longstanding creative talents.

The Manuels started prototyping stylish triple-layer masks in the spring, months before the Nov. 3 announcement by chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam that all Canadians should wear triple-layer non-medical masks throughout the winter.

All of the Manuels’ mask prototypes pass the candle test — a way of making sure the mask is blocking any droplets from passing through.

“You can’t blow a candle out with our masks on,” says David. “I anticipated that if it didn’t hold up to a certain bar, it wouldn’t be helpful to people. So, the triple layer has always seemed like the bare minimum standard.”

David came up with the original idea for triple masks. Then the family combined David’s digital-media skills, his father’s fashion-design background and talents, and other relatives’ sewing skills to create and sell handmade masks online.

The concept for an online store started after David’s father, Lester, began making masks for seniors while volunteering at an elder-care home in Surrey when the pandemic began.

David’s girlfriend, Celina Drysdale-Henriquez, models the Muk-hauté holiday collection. Photo: David Manuel.

“My grandma lives in Toronto on her own,” David said. “And there’s people there who help her and it helps make her life a lot better. So I think that that was kind of the source of that motivation for my dad to try to do something for other seniors here who maybe don’t have as much support.”

When Lester Manuel started sewing masks, he used playful and upbeat patterns to bring a bit of cheer to the seniors’ home. After a few design tweaks, he began prototyping the masks that now fill the virtual shelves of Muk-hauté.

A family project 

The shop is a collective effort for the family. The younger Manuel’s fashion photography captures the carefully crafted details and neat stitching of the silk, linen, and sequinned face coverings, while the elder Manuels, including David’s mother, bring their sewing skills to bear. So far, over 500 of the masks have sold, earning the Etsy shop a five-star rating.

Lester Manuel works at a full-time job with the provincial government, but he’s always kept his hand in fashion. He began in the 1980s in a Mumbai boutique designing clothes for models and up-and-coming Bollywood stars, like internationally acclaimed actress Aishwarya Rai. 

“I learnt to sew from my sister, my aunt and neighbours,” Lester said. “It was mostly by trial and error and through the kindness of women who risked their fine fabric with me.”

Despite the family living apart during the pandemic, David says, the mask-making venture has strengthened their family bonds, and allowed both David and his dad to keep their creative talents alive. 

“I think also my girlfriend and my parents have gotten closer through the process too. And you know, that makes these sort of two worlds of mine feel a little bit more connected.”

As for Lester, he’s been working full-time while filling Muk-hauté mask orders. 

“They’ll get like 12 orders in one day or something. So, yeah, like it gets tiring and he’s not getting any younger, but he gets a lot of joy out of it,” says David. 

Wearing a mask is one of the measures the federal government recommends for public safety until a vaccine is approved for public use. 

As of Dec. 12, there are 9,589 active cases of COVID-19 in B.C., and over 73,000 active cases Canada-wide.