Stores are closing all over Rome. The newest ones to open are selling masks.
Then they went to him with an idea.
Why not reimagine some of the stores? Why not start selling the one thing everybody seemed to need?
They suggested starting a company that sold nothing but masks.
“I realized the necessity for masks will be with us for a long time,” said Luca Guerrini, 17. He had imagined going back to high school in the fall with a surgical mask and thought he — and others — might prefer something stylish and personalized.
Marco agreed to give them a chance. He handed over two shuttered stores on which he was still paying rent. The signs that read “Enoteca Guerrini” disappeared; the new ones say “Lamaska.”
For Guerrini’s children — Martina, 16, Luca, 17, and Matteo, 19 — the new venture is an attempt to offset some of the family’s economic distress. But their effort to turn a protective device into a business opportunity also points to a broader attitude in the country, where masks are widely used, no more controversial than cellphone cases — and entrepreneurs are working to meet rising demand.
Lamaska, the first masks-only store in Rome, is opening at a time when much of the city shows signs of deep pain. Many businesses tried to reopen after the lockdown. But in the center, which is dependent on tourism, more and more shops — from luxury brands on down — are giving up, their once-glistening windows now displaying “for rent” signs.
Marco Guerrini has continued to operate four of his 20 wine stores, and hopes to reopen others if the economy improves.
Still, even in that environment, remaining companies, and Italians, are embracing the mask. Some boutiques keep a few near the display window. At Yamamay, a major swimwear and underwear chain, the mannequins are wearing masks with matching bikinis. Men’s shirt stores make masks from their fabrics; an upscale designer, Laura Biagiotti, is offering luxury models for $40.
Next to one of the two Lamaska locations, a tailor who has been in business for 20 years says she’s been designing masks for clients to match their suits — a “chance to lighten this nightmare we’ve all been living with,” she said.
“If you can make the mask look good, it’s way better,” said Feri Mastoureh, who said she’s struggling to keep her own business afloat.
Italy has one of the highest rates of mask acceptance in the West, surveys show, and mask use in indoor public spaces is mandatory. The country was an early epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but a strict lockdown sent the virus into retreat, allowing Italy to begin reopening nearly three months ago. Virologists say mask-wearing has contributed to the success in Italy and other countries.
In part because the virus arrived here with such a horrific explosion, there has been virtually no political pushback against the masks. It’s hard to find a confrontation of the kind common in the United States between those charged with enforcing mask rules and those who refuse to wear face coverings.
“In some countries it has acquired a symbolic and political meaning, but that was never the case here, and it never will be,” said Pierfranco Malizia, a cultural sociologist. Still, Malizia said, he thinks Italians view masks as a painful reminder of the pandemic and “can’t wait” to get rid of them.
The Guerrini siblings and fellow Lamaska co-founder Federico Alessi, 19, note that Italians seem to have dropped their guard about wearing masks outdoors. They see parties packed with young people, social distancing ignored.
“The average age of the infected person in Italy has gone down,” Luca said. “It’s something of a youthful thing, to act less responsible.”
Their hope has been to try to make masks more palatable for the long term. Their stores sell masks patterned after national flags and soccer team colors, in leather and sweat-wicking material, in showy patterns and business-casual solids. Most sell for $5 to $10. Some are as expensive as $50. They’ve built their stock from suppliers including leather producers and children’s clothing manufacturers that have started producing masks in recent months in their own attempts to adjust to the new economy.
The teenagers say they have long been interested in business — the oldest, Matteo, studies marketing and management in college — but they were nervous on opening day for their first store this month.
The shop was steps away from Campo de’ Fiori, a piazza with an open-air market that, most summers, is packed with tourists.
The partners were all inside the store, waiting, as was their dad.
The doors opened. Customers started entering.
The city wasn’t busy, but Lamaska was. They sold 150 masks the first day.
“It was the first time I’d seen my dad smile in months,” Matteo said.
“My heart was smiling,” agreed Marco, the father.
Neither Marco nor his children know whether the business model will work, he said. But for now, they’ve made enough money to pay the rent at the two locations — 8,000 and 9,000 euros per month — and the teenagers plan to use proceeds to open a third store.
Luca was walking last week down Via Del Corso, one of Rome’s most famed shopping boulevards. He passed an emptied storefront and saw a new sign pasted out front that made him freeze.
He took a picture and sent it to his siblings.
It was an advertisement for a soon-to-come store — a competitor. Just a few blocks away from Lamaska, there’d be a new place to buy masks.