New Orleanians

Cocktails with your face covered? A NOLA designer has figured it out

Health officials say to wear a mask in public places whenever possible. But as restaurants start to reopen, and people cautiously begin to meet friends for food and drinks, a question begins to take shape: Is there a way to cover your mouth and nose while enjoying a spring cocktail?

Artist and designer Ellen Macomber, naturally based here in New Orleans, has one potential solution: a line of fabric face masks with a specially made flap designed to insert a straw, like a doggie door built for your favorite potable. When you’re sitting around a table or walking down the street, the flap, sewed in place at two corners, stays sealed. When you’re ready to take a sip, you can push the straw through the flap and into your mouth, circumventing the two fabric layers making up the rest of the mask.

“It’s like a trap door,” Macomber said. “It just goes through.”

Photo via Ellen Macomber

Keeping it local

After some press attention and social media buzz, Macomber said she made and sold about 100 of the masks over the course of a week. She’s currently still taking orders for new masks and shipping them out as they come together, explaining she spends about an hour handcrafting each of the facial coverings, all while homeschooling her child and working on other art projects. The mask business is busy enough that she may bring on some additional craftspeople, she said, although she emphasized she intends to keep production local, employing New Orleans artists.

“Any sort of mass production is not fun,” she said. “I don’t do it. Never have. Never will.”

Sustainable sipping

With planned appearances at Jazz Fest and the Round Top Antiques Fair in Texas shut down by the coronavirus, the mask sales have helped keep Macomber and her assistant in business. Macomber makes many of the masks from remnant fabric from her line of handmade caftans.

“I am a hippie,” said Macomber, who also sells items like elaborate ski jacket appliqués, blankets and ties decorated with New Orleans maps and visually stunning handbags. “I am going to recycle, reuse, repurpose. I’m not going to buy new fabric when I have perfectly good fabric here.”

That means repeat customers who already have one of Macomber’s caftans can request a matching mask, assuming she has the fabric in stock. Others can check Macomber’s website to see what designs are available as she works around shipping delays to bring in additional material, like a few varieties of sequined fabric, to meet demand.

Photo via Ellen Macomber

“Suck It” masks vs other masks

One question that naturally surrounds Macomber’s masks: Do they actually work in preventing the spread of the coronavirus? She emphasizes that they’re not “hospital grade” equipment and that they should be used in conjunction with other precautions, like social distancing. You might want to use a more traditional mask on your next supermarket trip (or liquor run), and Macomber does also sell solid fabric face coverings for those who prefer them.

But, she said, if you do choose to go and have a drink with friends or family, the masks she sometimes jokingly calls “Suck It” masks can help catch some of the spittle and spray from your conversation. They also minimize the need to touch your mask and face, compared to a traditional mask that you’d potentially apply and remove as you sip your cocktail or soda, she said.

“Just like you have different outfits for different occasions, you’ll have different masks for different occasions,” she said. “This is for when you know you’re going to be going drinking with your friends.”

Supporting local

The artistically designed masks are also pricier than a basic handkerchief or even some medical-grade protective masks. They’re currently listed on Macomber’s website for $30 each. But in addition to being conversation pieces and facilitating easy drinking, they come with the satisfaction of knowing you’re supporting a New Orleans-based artist. If you do order an artisanal sipping mask to go with your favorite artisanal sipping cocktail, Macomber advises hand-washing and air-drying her creations as needed.

“Treat it like an evening gown,” she said. “You wear it to the occasion, and you wash it delicately and hang it.”