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SANTA CRUZ — The choking dust of the Black Rock Desert at a Burning Man Festival in Nevada was the initial inspiration for a reusable protective mask that makes a fashion statement and has rung up more than $1 million in international sales this year.
Vogmask, which touts itself as “the world’s first high-fashion, high filtration mask,” offers protection against allergens, pollutants and bacteria.
“So many people need to wear masks and don’t have to look sad or sick,” said Marc Brown, co-founder and chief visionary officer of the company that started with online sales about two years ago. “They can look happy.”
Vogmask is a brand of Ohlone Press, a limited liability company launched in Santa Cruz in 2011 by Brown, a Santa Cruz resident, and his mother, Wendover Brown, who serves as chief executive officer. The company is now based in San Francisco, where Wendover Brown lives.
The masks are made of microfiber fabric that, if properly fit, filters an average of 99 percent of particulate matter, according to tests. They have spandex trim and ear loops that hold the mask in place. Although not marketed as medical masks, they offer protection numerous contaminants, according to the Browns who have them made at the same South Korean textile manufacturer that makes 3M masks, a dominant player in the market.
The print designs — all created by the younger Brown — include solid colors, checks, cartoon figures and spinoff palettes from classic and contemporary artists, as well as graphics from ghosts to skateboard culture. They are made in child and adult sizes and, thanks to an exclusive licensing agreement with a top Swiss distributor in China, have earned top shelf space in one of the most pollution-plagued countries on the planet. In China, they sell as a premier product for $37 each.
Vogmask derived from the words “vogue” and the volcanic emissions known as “vog.” The company was profitable within its first year, according to the Browns who started the company with money from the sale in 2011 of another family business, BrownTrout Publishers, which specialized in online sales of calendars, as well as traditional books.
By the end of 12 months, we could tell it was going to work,” Wendover Brown said. “We keep trying to improve the product. Each series is more advanced.”
Domestic sales that target allergy sufferers, travelers and gardeners, remain the strongest market for Vogmask. Sales received a boost from early online “flash” discount product introduction sales and later when Richard Saint Cyr, a medical doctor and health columnist with MyHealth Beijing, gave it high marks for comfort and design.
Last year, Saint Cyr touted the Vogmask for children and mentioned the mask several times in columns along with competitive products. He called it one of Top Face Masks on the market for air pollution. Then, in October, the World Health Organization declared air pollution an official carcinogen.
“The sales went crazy,” Wendover Brown said. “People are more conscious now of all the particles they breathe than ever before.”
The Browns say they aren’t looking for market domination, but hope eventually to sell the business to a strategic partner.
“The fun part was developing the product and getting it known worldwide,” Wendover Brown said.
The pair also has a more philosophic spin on their product.
“It’s also about how you don’t have to accept an inherited future,” Wendover Brown said. “There are ways to respond to challenges of contemporary civilization like air pollution and an increase in allergies.”
Follow Sentinel correspondent Jennifer Pittman at Twitter.com/jenniferpittman
At a glance
Ohlone Press LLC
WHAT: Ohlone Press is the owner of the brand Vogmask, a reusable anti-pollution mask made of microfiber fabric that is sold through international distributors.
HEADQUARTERS: San Francisco
BACKGROUND: Founded in 2011 as a limited partnership in Santa Cruz and incorporated in January 2014.
LEADERSHIP TEAM: Wendover H. Brown, chief executive officer, and Marc C. Brown, chief visionary officer
CONTACT INFORMATION: http://www.vogmask.com