I remember the first time I took note of the balaclava. It was a little over a year ago, at a crowded house party in deep Brooklyn. A lanky, twenty-something man wore a bright orange balaclava—despite the tropical microclimate created by all the packed, dancing bodies. He took nonchalant sips from a red Solo cup, mesmerizingly comfortable in his anonymity.
At that time, I viewed the moment as eccentric and kooky. Who wears a balaclava if they’re not in the arctic or planning a heist? Though balaclavas—also known as ski masks—have been popular for a long time in frigid locales such as Eastern and Northern Europe, they weren’t as common in a city like New York. But perhaps their relative out-of-placeness is what made them a great candidate for trend-forward New York style. Colorful, striped balaclavas like the ones sold by Marni and Ella Emhoff catches your eye, but also obscures the identity of the wearer. It places all your attention on the clothes, not the person.
But then balaclavas went from an intriguing rarity to a bubbling trend. When I walked my French bulldog around my former neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, foolhardy daredevils would zip by on motorcycles and four-wheelers and perform their tricks while wearing a balaclava.
Not too long after, during the first wave of the Omicron-variant in December of 2021, balaclavas served as multi-purpose facemasks. They also infiltrated rap culture seemingly overnight around this time, too. Drill rappers such as Tion Wayne and SL wore ski masks throughout their music videos and performances. Nicki Minaj even started selling some for $40 after she rapped about the trending accessory in a hard-edged collaboration with rapper Lil Baby.
Suddenly, it seemed as if a particular sect of hip hop culture—and its passionate, creative fans—had taken a special liking to balaclavas. As Brooklyn rapper Lola Brooke explains of the phenomenon, “In Brooklyn, we know what will be the biggest fashion statements before it takes off!”
These days, the balaclava is as likely to be spotted in deep Bushwick as it is in, say, a Paris Fashion Week show or a trendy bar in downtown Manhattan. They have been spotted on the runways of an ever-growing list of shows, spanning both menswear and womenswear: Marni, Loewe, Y-Project, Kenzo, Simone Rocha, and more. The latest Louis Vuitton menswear collection—created with Colm Dillan of KidSuper—featured a selection of leather and latex balaclavas paired with meeting-ready suits and overcoats. British designer Marine Serre upped the ante by selling masks that even cover the nose and mouth, leaving only the eyes exposed and creating something more primed for, say, Rihanna’s iconic “S&M” visual.
The popular instagram account @LeagueFits—which documents the powerful off-court style moments of NBA players—seems to feature at least one player wearing a balaclava while heading to or from a game with regular frequency. British rap artist Meekz hit the Brits Award red carpet in February of last year in an obfuscating balaclava paired with chunky black sunglasses; actor Evan Mock attended the 2022 Met Gala in a spike face mask that, while not technically one, exists in the balaclava family.
But this is a trend rooted very much so in the everyday. Model, designer, and creative Ella Emhoff has turned her knitting passion into a blossoming business. She sells a variety of handmade balaclavas, along with other knits, to hungry shoppers on the regular. And a number of independent knitwear brands, such as Mask On NYC and, sell handmade ones, too. It’s as if we’ve all emerged from COVID-19 lockdowns clinging to the partial obscurity N95 face masks offered.
Below, seven balaclava-lovers from across New York talk about their enduring love for this season’s buzziest winter accessory.
Austin Tyler, creative, 22
Where did you find this balaclava?
The balaclava is from the homie, Tobi, and his brand, @hyacyn_nyc.
What do you like about wearing a balaclava?
It brings life to my fit.
How would you describe your style in a few words?
Straight. From. The. Street.
Do you think balaclavas are a new NYC winter staple or a passing trend?
Winter staple, for a fact.