Marshall Haas founded Peel, a direct-to-consumer line of minimalist smartphone accessories, in 2012. Which, before the pandemic, might not have seemed an “essential” business. And yet: as the coronavirus crisis surges on, Peel is thriving. In fact, last month was the company’s best to date, beating out last November’s Black Friday. And this surge wasn’t in spite of the Coronavirus but a direct result of it.
Back in March, Haas saw an opportunity. Right as the transmission of the disease crystalized into a looming threat troubling the minds of Americans, Haas and the rest of us saw our environs in a new light: public surfaces that were once innocuous, like door knobs, ATMs, and light switches, would suddenly seem like danger zones. So Peel released a small handheld device that looks like the love child of a keychain fob and a brass knuckle. It’s meant to act as a barrier between your hand and the germ-covered world closing in around you—it’s even made from brass, which is antimicrobial. It’s called the Keychain Touch Tool ($35). It’s kept companies Peel afloat through an economic crash—but it also suggests a new way for fashion brands to market in the face of the virus, beyond first-wave pandemic fashion like WFH sweatsuits and face masks.
Haas was lucky. He’d been in business for close to a decade, which meant he had access to industrial designers, connections to production facilities, and an intimate understanding of manufacturing logistic chains. So it took a mere long weekend for the Keychain Touch Tool to go from idea to prototype. A few days later the first batch was available for purchase and being advertised on Instagram. The product has been a hit.
In the same way masks quickly evolved from medical necessity to fashion item to political identifier, the no-touch tool is poised to be the newest edge of Coronavirus accessories, practical objects that will no doubt become status items that reflect personal tastes. And they’re not going anywhere: “We’ve gotten a lot of [messages] from all sorts of different companies that are interested in collaborations,” Haas, who is based in Dallas, said. “I don’t want to name names, but things like hotels to real estate companies to straight fashion companies.”
Like masks, no-touch tools have proliferated quickly on Etsy. A public relations representative for the craft-focused retail site said that, even though it’s a very new category offering, it’s seen explosive growth. Between March 1st and April 25th, the site saw a 5,217 percent year-over-year increase in searches for “door openers.”
And once I started googling around for no-touch tools, Big Brother started bombarding my Instagram feed with targeted ads on these newfangled devices, making me aware of how many there are—and the idea that we’re in early days yet. Ads from fashion brands pushing sleek sneakers and oversize hoodies were replaced with images of the KeySmart Clean Key (“Don’t let your fears paralyze you…”) and the USA-made COVID Key from Milspin. And as these things go, you can bet that no-touch tools will soon be fashion brands’ hot new items. If no one wants to buy expensive designer clothes to wear at home, maybe they’ll want to buy an ornament for their perilous trips to the grocery store. And if said ornament has a little fashion-y finesse or the co-sign of a cool designer, even better.
In fact, the first collaboration is already here. The LA-based brand Pleasures just released its Hygiene Multi-Tool with SafeTouch, available now for $28. As it turns out, the Pleasures instrument is a bit of serendipitous timing. “Our longtime friend and collaborator Zach Hunkins mentioned the concept to us back in January,” said Pleasures founder Alex James, noting his wasn’t meant to be a direct response to the current climate. “Back then I really didn’t think much of it, as the virus hadn’t really hit the USA yet.”
The Pleasures tool applies the brand’s signature cobweb motif and the Old English-style font to SafeTouch’s no-touch device. “The design is unique in itself. We didn’t want to change that, just wanted to add our own flair,” James said. “We’ve been running a spider web theme since 2016 and have an upcoming Reebok project involving the web. [We] thought it made the most sense and we went for it. The end result is pretty cool.”
Like other companies, Pleasures is now in the post-coronavirus era: they’ll be releasing a face mask and hand sanitizer, too. “[Masks] are a way of life moving forward,” said James. “Just like the hat, it has become a normal accessory.”
“COVID-19 is single-handedly responsible for creating new categories of products we never knew we needed two months ago,” said Michael Fisher, VP of menswear at the trend forecasting agency Fashion Snoops. “We had clients from all over the world asking us immediately about the future of masks and gloves as must-have accessories for the seasons ahead. It only took a couple of weeks to find some of our favorite brands like Rowing Blazers and Magill in LA to start making masks out of leftover fabrics. It’s worth noting, they’ve mostly sold out immediately. I think consumers realize this is our new normal for a while and there’s no reason not to incorporate some personal style into these items.”
Of course, while masks have been broadly recommended by the CDC, hand tools have not. But as quarantine restrictions end and we’re allowed out of our homes, germs will be top of mind. “This virus will create a whole new generation of germaphobes that will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” Fisher continues. “Even when [Coronavirus] is gone, I think most of us will be hyper-aware of touching surfaces at retail. I would expect to see a long-term effect when it comes to items like these that allow us to live our lives without worrying as much about the germs. I’d also expect this to be a major catalyst in being a cashless, contactless society faster than we ever imagined.” He noted that Suitsupply is considering erecting partitions between its tailors and customers, and that Saks has spoken publicly about making sure its cleaning crews are “front and center during business hours.”
Their effectiveness is up for debate. According to the New York Times’ product review website the Wirecutter, these no-touch tools may be more hype than help. “Yes, they can serve as that important in-between keeping your bare hands from touching an infected surface—and given enough time, viruses will die on copper,” writes Nick Guy. “But if you’re just tossing the tool back into your pocket or bag after you use it, you could still be exposing yourself to what you’re trying to avoid.”
Guy goes on to reference a study from the New England Journal of Medicine that found the viral source of COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, remains on copper for up to four hours, compared to plastic or steel, where it can endure for a whopping three days. “It’s not that copper kills the novel coronavirus on contact, but rather that the surface is inhospitable for it.” The Times’ final recommendation is to just wear disposable gloves.
Perhaps the appeal is more philosophical. If masks are our new tools of outward expression, then these little doodads can be seen as a reflection of something more interior. Like worry beads or good luck charms, no-touch tools can live within our pockets, the perfect thing to nervously run our hands over like talismans, a way to work through our unending jitters about the microbes crawling all over every surface. They’re a reminder that disease is everywhere, even if they’re not an airtight shield from said disease. They also remind me of the phenomenon of wearing your keys visibly, often hanging from a belt loop on a carabiner.
And as anyone who follows fashion knows, utility is just one part—often a small one—of why we buy what we buy. Wearing sneakers is less often about working out than broadcasting an idea about yourself. And right now, in the spring of 2020, one of the most important things a person could broadcast about themselves is that they are aware of the dangers lurking on every surface, and that they are taking precautions to shield themselves and others from illness. And if you think that people aren’t closely monitoring you’re behavior, you’d be wrong: Coronavirus shaming is a thing (of course), and health initiatives like wearing a mask and social distancing are becoming partisan issues.
If sweats can go from slovenly to aspirational, and masks from treacherous to trendy, then why can’t a practically brand new commodity break into the world of fashion? As the world began to confront climate change more seriously, sustainability became a huge fashion buzzword. In the face of a highly contagious disease, might germophobia be due for a rebrand? What used to be hypochondria now looks—and is being sold—as something like common sense. And if there’s a market there to support those feelings, you can expect enterprising designers to step up and fill it.
Originally Appeared on GQ