David Haye is known as one of the best British fighters of his generation and, since his retirement from the sport, for having a successful career as a boxing promoter and manager.
So, he’s hardly the person you would naturally turn to for advice when you were looking for a face mask. Still, he’s the CEO of The Black Mask Company (www.theblackmaskcompany.com), which he set up when he was searching for a reusable black mask to buy and couldn’t find one in stock. Recognising there was a demand for such a thing, he asked around.
I caught up with Haye, via video call, inevitably, and he talked exclusively to the Independent about how he came to be involved in making masks for a pandemic.
“In January I got a call from a good friend based in Vietnam who advised getting washable masks. I asked what was the best and he said one that the police use there, but it's not available to buy, it's not a retail product.”
This didn’t put Haye off, however, and he managed to get in touch with the man in charge at the factory making the mask for the government. “The guy was a boxing fan and he sent some over – it started off I just wanted the best mask there was to give to my friends and family.”
Even here, the colour was an issue, but no longer insuperable: “They only came in grey, but I asked him to make them in black for me, and if he could make them in different sizes, so they would fit kids as well, for instance.”
The result is a three-layer cloth mask in black that comes in five different sizes, including one for children and another for young adults. What makes it useful to be worn during a Covid-19 pandemic? The answer lies in nano silver– tiny particles of silver, typically measuring around 25 nanometers.
Nano silver has been around for years, and can be found in products from anti-perspirant to medical devices. While the exact efficacy of this kind of silver is still unclear in viral terms, its anti-bacterial qualities are widely known. The US National Center for Biotechnology Information refers to nano silver particles having antifungal, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties.
Nano silver has also proved controversial among health and environmental campaigners, who claim that is could promote resistance to antibiotics, be toxic to stem and brain cells, and damage ecosystems if discarded improperly.
A comprehensive report by the European Commission in 2013 also warned of the "adverse effects in humans" that silver nano particles can have, including potential liver toxicity, while a 2018 study found that "sub lethal [nano-silver] exposure shortens the adult lifespan and compromises the stress tolerance capacity" within animals.
As scientists work to understand more about how coronavirus spreads, more is being learnt about the effectiveness of materials like nano silver. But it is clear that wearing a mask at all has a considerable effect on stopping transmission, and health professionals across the world have urged people to wear masks to stop the spread.
“Nano-silver is entwined in the fibres of the material of this mask. Vietnam knows what it’s doing, it has a 20-year history making fabric masks, since SARS and bird flu,” Haye claims.
It’s worth noting in passing that though Vietnam has a population of 100 million, so a lot bigger than the UK, the country has had fewer than 10 deaths from Covid-19. This is down to many things, such as closing borders and a strict track-and-trace system. But it’s also because the country has a culture which sees mask-wearing as highly acceptable.
The VP195 mask is certainly good to wear, with the softness of the cotton sitting comfortably against the face. It’s washable, and the nano silver continues to maintain its anti-bacterial properties for at least 30 washes, making it a better-value alternative to single-use disposable masks.
If I had a criticism, it’s that there’s no wire strip along the top edge of the mask, as found on many others, allowing you to mould the mask to fit your nose. That’s important for those wearing glasses, or sunglasses, to prevent lens-steam. Haye is receptive to this: “That’s something I’m looking into. Right now, I don’t want to stray too far from the original VP195 mask. It’s not in the mask as the Vietnamese protection services use it, but I’m listening to feedback. I want to make this the very best classy, comfortable, good-looking mask.”
But how easy was it for a boxer to be taken seriously as a businessman? “In terms of business I’ve always kind of looked after myself and staged my own events, from booking the venue to doing the television deal with Pay-per-view, so I’ve always been very hands-on.” Haye points out that because he has dealt direct with Sky Box Office or been able to book the O2 Arena and so on,
So, he was able to sink his teeth into the new business, burying himself in every detail from marketing to branding and beyond. “There’s no outstanding brand of mask at the moment, nothing that’s different from any other one, they all look the same.” Haye is unquestionably passionate about this new enterprise, devoting his energy to working on the mask, promoting it, refining it.
He’s hoping the VP195 mask will offer something genuinely different and inspire people, especially younger people, to wear masks.
Which is part of the challenge. Countries with a culture of wearing masks, like Vietnam, Japan and others, have had no problem adapting to wearing them full-time during the pandemic. That’s not the case for Brits. Now it’s compulsory to wear masks in stores, on public transport and beyond, Haye is banking on there being a much greater uptake here. “People are going to start wanting to wear comfortable, eco-friendly masks that are cost-effective. I think it’s something as simple as awareness. If you see someone wearing one of my masks, versus a disposable medical mask, then, if you have to wear one, you’ll gravitate to what looks good, what looks fashionable. Particularly young people. I think we’ll slowly but surely start to adapt.”
Masks are certainly in demand just now, and Haye’s mask, which costs £12.50 (less if you buy several at the same time) offers strong value-for-money compared to single-use versions. And they look much better.
Of course, competition is keen, with striking, colourful or funky masks widely available – though the anti-bacterial qualities of nano silver are not commonplace. Other rivals worth considering include the excellent Omniguard from Moshi, which uses a special bamboo filter to keep Covid-19 in its place.
But the VP195, exclusive to Haye’s company, is attractive and pleasant to wear. Its sweat absorbency means, the company says, it will appeal as much whether you’re a make-up wearer or a gym lover. Haye’s attachment to the company and his appearance in the branding doesn’t hurt either, and may even encourage reluctant Brits to step up to the mask wearing we all need to do.