PALO ALTO, United States — When Patagonia was in search of an eco-conscious alternative to neoprene, it considered wool. But then the outdoor apparel company came across Yulex, an Arizona-based supplier of latex-free rubber. Though the start-up was primarily focused on the commodities market, it had the tools to develop wetsuits that rivalled the performance, insulation capacity, stretch and durability of those made with traditional neoprene, but were better for the environment. Over a four-year period, Patagonia shouldered the costs of product development and guided Yulex on the needs of its consumers. By the end of 2013, the unlikely pair launched a plant-based wetsuit, using a desert shrub native to North America, on Patagonia’s website and in a limited number of surf shops. Shortly thereafter, the license was opened to the rest of the market.
“If we relied solely on the commercial materials in our suppliers’ catalogues, our products would start to look like those of all of the other brands,” said Matt Dwyer, Patagonia’s director of material innovation. “Materials innovation provides uniqueness, sustainability and value to our line, but this type of innovation has a large activation energy.”
Patagonia isn’t alone in focusing its attention on cutting-edge materials. A range of major fashion and apparel companies have been sourcing or developing new technologies to support the creation of fabrics and fibres that enhance the style, performance and sustainability of their products.
As with Patagonia’s partnership with Yulex, a fair amount of this activity has been driven by environmental concerns. A few years ago, for example, Nike realised that materials processing and production comprised nearly 60 percent of the negative environmental impact of a pair of its shoes. “That insight, along with our commitment to design with purpose, has helped sharpen our focus on the need for disruptive innovation in the world of materials,” wrote Nike chief executive Mark Parker in a letter to investors.
Lorrie Vogel, the sportswear giant’s vice president of materials science and product creation, says Nike often drives this kind of materials innovation through collaboration with partners, pointing to the Launch Systems Challenge, an initiative supported by Nike, along with NASA, the US Agency for International Development and the US Department of State, which last year focused on innovations aimed at reducing the environmental impact of textile, fabric and fibre production and brought together 150 materials specialists, designers, academics and manufacturers, including representatives from PolarTec, Levis, REI, Icebreaker, Target, Patagonia and Eileen Fisher, as well as a range of NGOs. The Beaverton, Oregon-based company also spent seven years developing the Nike Materials Sustainability Index, an open-source tool to help designers to create more sustainable shoes and apparel. “We knew that if we could establish an industry standard then we could actually change things at a faster rate and signal to our suppliers what we’re really trying to drive,” said Vogel.
Kering, which owns brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent and Puma, has articulated a similar commitment to sustainability, identifying a series of quantifiable targets which it hopes to achieve by 2016. And, importantly, a key component of the overall strategy is investment in new materials. Indeed, the conglomerate recently launched a Materials Innovation Lab in Northern Italy, housing a team of experts dedicated to helping “brands understand how they can make more sustainable choices and integrate these new sustainable materials throughout their supply chains and into their products,” according to a spokesperson.
Alongside sustainability, the pursuit of enhanced style and performance are also driving fashion and apparel brands to develop new materials. Uniqlo, for example, places great emphasis on the comfort of its clothing, according to Yuki Katsuta, senior vice president of global research and design at Fast Retailing, Uniqlo’s parent company which works closely on materials innovation with Toray Group, a global textile maker and long-term strategic partner.
Some say goals like raising the sustainability and performance level of products are best achieved in concert. “We talk about materials that are going to drive stronger performance for our athletes, but at the same time, we want them to be better for the environment,” said Vogel. “We have actually seen through using sustainability as a lens that we’ve really been able to drive innovations that do both.”
Arguably, the last major breakthrough in the materials widely used in clothing occurred more than a half a century ago, in the 1940s, with the adoption of polyester. In 1958, Lycra hit the market. Then, Gore-tex disrupted the outdoor apparel and sportswear sectors. But recent years have brought a wave of new innovation that is gathering momentum.
Katsuta says Uniqlo is continuously improving Heattech, its lightweight, heat-retaining fabric launched in 2003 and expanding its application across new product categories. The brand has also launched Airism, an underwear line made with a fibre technology that wicks-away sweat and moisture. In New York, lifestyle brand Mack Weldon recently launched boxer briefs and crew neck t-shirts that incorporate patented antimicrobial technology to provide odour protection, while Ministry of Supply, a professional clothing line founded out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2012, is tackling similar problems by applying the temperature-regulating technology used in NASA spacesuits to men’s shirts. With the backing of investors such as Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s VegasTechFund, the young company has hired a former director of design at Brooks Brothers and expanded its product line to include undershirts, slacks, chinos and light sweaters.
Ministry of Supply co-founder and CEO Gihan Amarasiriwardena, who was previously a research and design engineer at the Sports Technology Institute, said the practice of incorporating performance elements into professional attire has been driven by generational change: “A lot of our customers grew up with brands like Nike and Under Armour, so they’ve gotten used to those technical materials in their athletic lives. As they enter the professional part of their lives, they’re expecting that same kind of performance.”
There’s also no shortage of early-stage startups, research labs, independent scientists and engineers generating new materials that have potential applications in the fashion and apparel sector. Silicon Valley-based Modern Meadow, for example, is growing leather in a lab using a technology initially developed for the biomedical industry. Though the product is still in the research and development phase, samples unveiled at TEDGlobal last year were finer and thinner, “with a more fluid quality” than leather from animal skin, says Suzanne Lee, fashion designer and founder of Biocouture, a design consultancy focused on bringing living and bio-based materials to fashion, sportswear and luxury brands. Indeed, Modern Meadow plans to soon begin working with high-end designers to develop capsule collections with its cultured leather, says the company’s co-founder and CEO Andras Forgacs.
There’s also Qmilk in Hannover, Germany, which uses waste milk to produce a natural textile fibre. The smooth, silky fibre made from milk protein casein is said to be biodegradable, antimicrobial, flame-resistant and non-allergenic. The company launched its pilot plant this spring, which has an annual capacity of 1,000 tonnes per year and plans to enter the clothing, home textile and automotive markets, according to a presentation given by resource manager Felix Fuller in 2013.
Lee said start-ups like Modern Meadow and Qmilk are offering “the beginnings of a new generations of materials.” But for the moment, they’re still limited by the volume they can produce and the price of their product.
Of course, materials innovation involves multi-year time horizons, sizable research and development budgets, and a stomach for risk. “In order to be a robust innovation company, you need to make sure that you place bets in a lot of different areas,” said Vogel. “But that’s the cool thing about innovation. We want to take these seeds and see how far we can help them grow.”