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The Emperor's New-Tech Clothes

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page F01

A couple of months ago I got an e-mail from J.C. Penney touting the release of the chain's new Super Shirt -- a men's dress shirt made of "functional" fabric that didn't simply resist wrinkles, it also helped evaporate perspiration and controlled odor. The writer of the message claimed that the big trend in menswear today is "performance."

Really? Men surely think about performance in all kinds of ways, but do they really associate this notion with their clothing?

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So I was already wondering about functional fabrics when I got a shirt from Dockers that similarly claims unbelievable stain-, water- and odor-repelling properties. I must say, I had much fun pouring all kinds of things on this shirt to mess it up, to no avail.

I have since found out that, in fact, all these new fabric capabilities really are a big deal, not only in the apparel industry, but also for textile manufacturers. And even wilder, more wonderful capabilities are on the verge of showing up everywhere: socks that moisturize, shoes infused with silver molecules so they resist odor, clothing and curtains infused with fragrance that can last years. Imagine a little kid in a shirt that's not just cherry red, it also smells like cherry.

But unlike the old Alec Guinness movie "The Man in the White Suit," in which the invention of a never-needs-cleaning-or-ironing fabric sends the apparel industry into a tailspin, the clothing and retail worlds today are positively giddy about the real-life possibilities that technology is offering to an age-old business.

"What these performance features do is give [people] reasons to buy, and it also helps our retailers because it drives traffic to the stores," said John Ordoña, a spokesman for Dockers in San Francisco.

What's more, people are apparently willing to pay more for the ability to spill coffee on themselves and watch it bead up and roll off like mercury. At J.C. Penney, the company's own stain-repellent khakis cost more than the chain's regular khakis but became the top-selling pants in the category as soon as they were introduced 18 months ago. Sales of the St. John's Bay Worry Free twill pants are up 56 percent this year, said Tami Wolfe, director of product development for J.C. Penney.

The developments in clothing performance are the result of chemists and engineers getting involved in fabric treatment on the molecular level. It's not enough to treat the surface of a garment with a stain-repellent coating anymore. Today, creating a stain-resistant shirt means fusing molecules of water-resistant chemicals to the actual fibers of the fabric, giving it an almost creepy ability to deflect any kind of liquid.

At the same time, molecules of anti-microbial substances might be attached to those same fibers, preventing the growth of odor-causing bacteria. Meanwhile, other chemicals, weaves and treatments can make that same shirt pull moisture away from the body and release it, so sweat evaporates more quickly.

And, voilà -- you have a shirt that doesn't stink or show sweat marks or evidence of this morning's breakfast disaster.


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