NEW YORK, United States —Can your jeans protect you from coronavirus? How about your button-down?
It’s unlikely. A growing body of research has found that the coronavirus is more likely to be transmitted through airborne respiratory droplets, and that they can be more dangerous than contaminated soft surfaces such as clothing. Wearing a mask and practising social distancing remain the most effective forms of protection.
That hasn’t stopped brands from introducing clothes and accessories they claim will stop viruses. Diesel promises its new “virus-fighting” denim’s antiviral fabric technology is “always on … and has the capacity to disable over 99 percent of viral activity within two hours of contact.” London-based Apposta promises its dress shirts’ fabric inhibits “hosting bacteria and viruses, including Covid-19,” and “reduces the likelihood and speed of contaminations, transmissions by destroying bacteria and viruses on contact.”
These companies are betting that antiviral clothing, once reserved for medical uniforms and face masks, are poised to become the next big innovation in fashion, taking their place alongside antibacterial activewear and wrinkle-free shirts. Not all of these brands explicitly mention Covid-19 in their marketing copy, but shoppers who see the word “antiviral” or “antimicrobial” likely won’t have too much trouble making the connection.
With apparel spending expected to contract by as much as 30 percent this year, according to McKinsey and BoF’s State of Fashion Coronavirus Update, retailers are willing to try almost anything to lure anxious shoppers back. Tackling their fear of germs head-on with antiviral fabrics is one way to woo them. The technology is also being pitched to retailers as a way to self-sanitise items that customers try on in stores.
Whether consumers buy into the hype remains to be seen. Diesel will use Swedish firm Polygiene’s fabric treatment, which “stops viral activity through interaction with key proteins,” according to the firm’s site. Silver, long used to fight odour-causing bacteria in fabric, is another popular element of antiviral treatments. Swiss firm HeiQ uses a technology that relies in part on silver to destroy viruses on fabrics.
The scientific details are likely to be lost on many customers, however.
“What is anti-viral, what is anti-bacterial, how do I use it, how do I wash it?” asked Lucy Shea, chief executive of sustainability agency Futerra. “I can see it generating more anxiety than less.”
Polygiene Chief Marketing Officer Mats Georgson said the terminology is made more complicated by regional differences in regulation. In Europe, fabrics tend to be labelled antibacterial or antiviral, each coming with separate standards, he said. In the US, only medical products can typically be touted as antiviral. Otherwise, fabrics can be labelled antimicrobial, he said, meaning they pass antibacterial tests. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they kill viruses as well.
Antimicrobials claims can also bring legal problems for brands. In 2019, medical apparel brand Figs faced a suit over alleged claims that its apparel was “antimicrobial” and could reduce infections. The plaintiff subsequently decided to have the suit “dismissed with prejudice,” meaning they could not bring the same claims against the company again.
"Figs is proud that the antimicrobial properties of our fabric inhibit the growth of odour-causing microbes to offer fabric protection, durability and freshness when healthcare professionals need it most," said the company in a statement.
Susan Scafidi, founder and director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University's School of Law, said brands need to be careful not to make general health claims, like that their products can protect consumers from getting Covid-19. And that in the US, government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and Environmental Protection Agency are on the lookout for questionable antimicrobial claims.
“In the current environment, there is a market for anything that might protect us, and therefore these particular government agencies are trying to stand between unethical and overly enthusiastic companies and desperate and gullible consumers,” Scafidi said. “But that being said, the technologies are exciting.”
Sarah Ahmed, the chief executive of sustainability-minded American denim labels DL1961 and Warp + Warp, said fabric treatments play into long-term consumer behavioural changes around cleanliness and make it more appealing to try on clothing in stores. As of Oct. 1, all new products will be treated with an antiviral chemical softener from HeiQ.
Your clothes carry germs, and when you come home and hug your kids, you don't want to change before and then do it.
“Covid has made us very aware of not only the Covid germ, but all the other germs that we were exposed to,” Ahmed said. “Your clothes carry germs, and when you come home and hug your kids, you don't want to change before and then do it.”
Polygiene’s Georgson said antiviral treatments can also have a positive environmental impact by reducing water waste, if such fabrics convince consumers they don’t need to wash their clothes as frequently, much in the same way antibacterial treatments have for activewear.
“A lot of denim lovers don’t want to wash their jeans, period…. But they get mould, they get body odour and now also virus is a factor,” Georgson said.
Diesel is also making an early bet on the trend. Chief Executive Massimo Piombini said the brand invested in the Polygiene treatment, for which it has an exclusive licensing deal on denim in combination with an anti-odour chemical, to make customers’ lives easier during a complicated time, especially when it comes to shopping.
“Now there are a lot of constraints,” said Piombini. “When you enter a physical store, you have to wear a mask. Sometimes you have to wear gloves. If you want to try something, then once you have tried that, it has to be sanitised … This [treatment] was a serious and clear way to protect the garments from viruses.”
Shea said fashion brands that offer antimicrobial treatments risk appearing “gimmicky,” and should be careful “not use this as the next fashion craze that drives more unnecessary consumption and production, but to be strategic in the items it creates using this technology.” Other simpler design innovations, like T-shirts with built-in masks, could have more impact on keeping consumers healthy.
“If it’s really going to help, great,” she said. “But if not, then what’s the point?”