Frontier fashion – nonwoven fabrics, interactive fibres and nanotechnology

Financial Times, Feb 02 2002

Forget chainmail and silver trim, Fiona Harkin finds laboratories are stitching up the future with nonwoven fabrics, interactive fibres and nanotechnology

It’s 2002. Why aren’t we dressed in temperature-controlled clothing with built-in radiation protection and, of course, silver trim? At least on the surface, third-millennium fashion is far less futuristic than predicted and, frankly, a bit of a let-down.

Fashion designers of the 1960s such as Courreges and Paco Rabanne envisaged us in a space odyssey of chainmail and Perspex. Their modern equivalents see us, this spring, in a surfeit of nostalgia: loved-up hippy styles featuring all things floaty and flowery, and lots of

that century-old invention, denim. But subtle advances in fabric technologies have been infiltrating our lives ever since Spandex became a rock star staple in the early 1980s. And they still are.

“The 1990s were all about reflective clothing that was loud and showy about its technology. Today, the emphasis is more about the fibre, and adding anti-microbials to the fabric dyes, or bonding them with Lycra or Teflon,” says Savania Davies-Keiller, one of the brains behind Design Development Concepts USA.

Based in New York, DDC is a laboratory of fabric developments for leading clothing groups such as Levi’s, Reebok and Gap. The company also designs its own line of clothes made from nonwoven fabrics – the stuff of which paper towels, padded FedEx envelopes and fashion dreams are made.

Nonwovens are a strange hybrid, neither woven (like denim or tartan), nor knitted (like sweatshirt material). They include Tyvek, which was discovered in 1955 by a DuPont plastics researcher who noticed a “stringy material” with unusual elastic properties leaking from pipes transporting polyethylene polymers. It is traditionally referred to as milk-jug plastic, but, three years ago, was featured in a sell-out range of DDC nonwoven clothing, aptly named Futura.

“We learned from cutting and handling these Tyvek-based materials that they had a low stress tolerance, didn’t stretch and didn’t breathe. DDC went about solving these problems,” says British-born Davies-Keiller, The company also helped figure out how to make the future bright rather than white for polyethylene. It doesn’t dye easily, so DDC printed, coated and spliced the fibres with colour.

DuPont (which is also responsible for fabrics such as Lycra and Tactel) approached Davies-Keiller and her partner at DDC, Roberto Crivello, and asked them to research nonwovens for the apparel industry, as part of Neotis Studio, a new division set up in May last year. Neotis was given a Dollars 3m annual budget and a succinct brief: to bring intelligent functionality to fashion. Its client list includes Nike, Levi’s and Tommy Hilfiger. Neotis fabrics can also be found in the collections of French urbanwear specialist, MF Girbaud, and hot Brazilian designer, Carlos Miele.

DDC’s own line, DDC Lab, includes stretch-leather and shaved lambskin infused with Lycra to create figure-hugging yet feather-light trousers. What look like ordinary jeans are Teflon-treated to withstand water, wind and stains. Stretch Tyvek tops look as though they are woven and feel crisp like cotton, but stretch like elastic.

“We take a simple garment, like the white cotton shirt, and see how we can improve it from within,” says Davies-Keiller. “We can make it stretchy, more tactile, waterproof, breathable, anti-microbial, while still using natural fibres, too.”

This summer’s DDC Lab collection, to be stocked in London at Harvey Nichols and Selfridges, features airy stretch-leather perforated trousers, tightly fitting yet resilient paper jackets and clingy vest tops. This is what rock stars want to wear: DDC designed a stylish, but performance-proof wardrobe for ex-Fugees singer Lauryn Hill on her Miseducation tour.

And that’s just the tip of the “multifunctional” fabric iceberg. How about a daily dose of vitamin C incorporated into the fabric of your shirt, which you absorb through your skin? What about clothes that emit their own insect repellent? Such high-tech, low profile innovations are becoming available on the market. A garment without seams, for instance which snaps to fit the individual shape of the wearer, and protects their body – is the kind of thing that exemplifies DDC’s work, and which, Davies-Keiller believes, will soon filter through into mass-market fashion.

Neotis is ironing out how to produce such fabrics on a mass scale for the apparel industry, It has already signed a one-year design deal with Gap, with an eye to manufacturing a pair of nonwoven khakis – for 25 per cent less than standard khakis. And there’s talk of developing recyclable plastics, so an athlete could buy a six-pack of trainers and recycle them after a single use.

“There is still work to be done before these materials can be produced for the mass market,” says Robert Francois, acquisitions manager for DuPont’s Apparel Textile Sciences division, which was set up in January last year and incorporates Neotis. “But the cost of doing this has proven to be very attractive. There will certainly be continued investment in this area.”

Meanwhile, less-advanced but amusing gadgetry continues to entice us. But it is often over-expensive (last year’s Levi’s jacket with a built-in mobile phone and Mp3 player retailed at Dollars 600-Dollars 900) or unattainable (Svenvest, a computerised football shirt developed at Birmingham University monitors pulse and heart rates, and remains a prototype).

Some items are progressive and practical, such as North Face’s heat-generated Polartec MET5 jacket. But this is not frontier stuff; it relies on good old-fashioned batteries.

The future, according to DuPont’s Francois and Davies-Keiller, is textronics – textiles with electronic properties. “We are currently researching textronics, It is certainly a definite possibility for apparel,” says Francois.

Philips Design, a research company within leading electronics group Philips, is already working on the next generation of wearable technology, including materials that conduct electricity, embroidered sensors and fabrics with switches, wiring and flexible displays as part of their weave.

Nanotechnology, the science of manipulating particles smaller than 100 nanometres (one nanometre is a billionth of a metre), looks promising. It has been incorporated in the

Converse helium-filled trainer, on sale in Japan and China. The US Army has used it to develop a new range of HazMat uniforms, one of which incorporates microscopic engineered fibres that let in air, yet block toxins used in chemical and biological warfare. But transporting such developments from the realm of science fiction to mass-market fashion is a slow and unspectacular process. It will continue to be gradual, with nonwovens at the forefront. If these fantastic plastics can do everything they promise, they could be fashion’s nuclear fusion.

They are already multifunctional. They require limited sewing. They are quick and cheap to produce. Nonwoven polyethylene polymers: they’re the new black.

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