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?
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 Ordona, 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, voila -- you have a shirt that doesn't stink or show sweat marks or evidence of this morning's breakfast disaster.
"We're going to see this all over the place -- not only in apparel fabrics, but also car applications, carpet applications," said Ingrid Johnson, a professor of textile development and marketing for the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She predicts widespread consumer acceptance and demand.
"Somebody throws a glass of wine on you and it just rolls off -- that's very, very, very visual and easy to understand," she said.
Already, she said, the costs of using such technology are coming down because its prevalence is growing.
It's quite refreshing to see these kinds of advancements arriving in the apparel industry, which for years has been a drag on retail, maligned for perpetually offering shoppers "nothing new" to excite them. Meanwhile, shoppers have been spending on all kinds of other new things that drain their wallets: from digital cameras and cell phones to gardening equipment and new kitchens.
But apparel sales have been rebounding strongly since the spring, in large part because fashion influences have been stronger and clothes just look nice right now. And maybe baby boomers have spent enough on their gardens and are buying new wardrobes again.
But this nascent strength, it seems, can only stand to gain if manufacturers truly figure out what it is that consumers want out of their clothes -- and they're on the verge of it. They should, however, limit the technological advances to the kinds of clothes that suit an insurance salesman who basically lives out of his car.
Right now much of the performance apparel is aimed at men. Dress shirts, polo shirts, suits, khakis and underwear -- these are the domain of textile nanotechnology. And there's a reason for that: Men are a bit more practical about their clothes than women. They not only want something that looks okay, they are drawn to a garment that is easy to care for.
"I would say when it comes to women, style and fit are the number one and number two purchase drivers," said Maureen Griffin, senior director of brand marketing for Dockers. "If it's got performance in it, it's an added bonus for her."
Maybe that's true now, but I bet it will change. Women are busy, too, and I think that most women would jump at the chance to find an article of clothing that is stylish and fits well but has none of the maddeningly common flaws found in so much fashion today: clothes that easily stain, wrinkle, pill, fade, run in the wash and shrink in funky ways. The good news is the experts say technology is addressing these concerns, and then some.
Strong evidence that women will not be left out of this revolution: Designer Miss Sixty is selling a line of pants and jeans that purports to reduce the appearance of cellulite on the thighs by weaving microcapsules of cellulite-reducing potions right into the fabric.
I'd settle for something I didn't have to iron or dry-clean.
But the fact that shoppers have already demonstrated a willingness to pay more for performance is going to be the main driver behind the growth of functional apparel. Retailers believe they may finally have found a way to get customers to pay full price for their clothes again.
Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst for market research firm NPD Fashionworld, predicts that by 2010, 25 percent of all apparel sold is going to have some kind of enhanced performance feature.
"The minute you experience it and see that it works, it changes everything," he said.
And it's about time.
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