When he first put on the Toucan, Thomas Finney felt transformed. He saw the bright orange, green, blue, and red leather beak hanging from his face and he was no longer himself—and, more importantly, for a moment he wasn’t in the middle of this horrific thing. Up to that point, he’d had a tough pandemic. Since 2016, he’d made a living as a made-to-measure tailor, but the made-to-measure business collapsed when the stay-at-home order went into effect. There was no way to meet with anyone, factories were closed, fabric mills weren’t shipping. He’d been cooped up in his studio apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, trying to imagine how he fit into this new world, trying to think up ways to survive. Designers big and small were getting into the mask business, responding with an endless array of maximalist prints, trying to move past the clinical simplicity of N95s and the scrub blues of surgical masks. But Finney wasn’t satisfied with the shapes they were producing. They hewed too close to their medical predecessors. Their connotations were more of protection than expression.
So when Finney started making masks, he tried something different. His versions sprouted out into three dimensions, morphed into inhuman creatures, grew beaks. They were objects of beauty and fun, rather than of fear and suffering, which suggested that the homebound could have fun in ways that didn’t require setting off fireworks at night. Going to your first socially distanced, masked party? Why not turn it into a tropical aviary? Finney’s masks are reminders of the amazing, colorful world we were part of before the pandemic narrowed our horizons. “I wanted [them] to feel like little reminiscences of nature,” he said over the phone in late June. “I wanted it to be a happy collection.”
Initially, though, Finney’s inspiration came from some dark history. Even before the pandemic, he’d started noticing plague doctors bubbling into the zeitgeist, popping up in youtube videos and anime series. “I wanted to explore the 2020 version of those scary plague doctor masks,” he says. He chose suede and leather for his masks because of the playful, spooky way those materials echoed the ones used by the original plague doctors. He crowded his apartment with leather-cutting knives, cutting blocks, and everything he needed to skive, sand, and shape the leather. Sourcing leather during a pandemic was another new challenge. “I’m used to going into midtown, selecting the leathers that I want by hand, and walking home with them,” he says. “That’s not the way it works in quarantine. The trickiest part was finding tanneries that were open and that I could order from online and trust the product.” It worked out, he says: “I was able to find some of the most beautiful leathers I’ve ever worked with.”
While other designers make masks much in the same way they’d create a T-shirt—cutting patterns, repurposing cotton, sewing everything together—Finney’s looked back to his time designing shoes at Thom Browne and Club Monaco. “There are a lot of small shapes that you would find on a shoe, like on a brogue that had a toe cap or a heel cap—all those rounded, finished edges, and the way that things interact,” he says. Those techniques went into his masks. So did paracord, for the drawstring on the masks, thanks to its athletic associations. “The masks ended up feeling like little pieces of sportswear,” he says. “They have a little bit of a handmade glove or handmade shoe or even a baseball mitt feel to them. Even when you look on the inside, if you didn’t necessarily know what you were looking at, you might think you were looking at the inside of a tennis shoe.”
As he experimented with shapes, his masks started expanding, growing new dimensions. Finney noticed they were moving closer to his plague doctor inspiration, while simultaneously looking more like “really fun, bright, colorful birds of paradise.” And though none of the beaks represented technically belong to members of the Paradisaeidae family, they’re colorful enough to live in any sort of paradise I could ask for. The closest to the plague doctor template is Finney’s Flamingo model, which looks vaguely menacing until you adopt the water-wading whimsy of the bird. And because you’re not a bird, the mask gives you a cavity in front of your mouth and nose, which you can use for air…or other substances. “There are plenty of legal calming herbs you could stuff inside of the bird beaks if you wanted,” Finney says. “Excellent for quarantine time.” The Parakeet mask is a little more compact than the Flamingo—it comes in a leather orange and blue rendition as well as a chrome plated version, for those of us who dream of lives as the shoulder-perched interlocutors of space pirates.