Where there are problems, there are opportunities for solutions.
In light of a pandemic-fueled supply chain disruption and growing climate crisis, the fashion industry has been ripe for disruption this past year.
Perhaps that’s why so many fashion innovations made Time’s list of the top 100 inventions in 2021. To gather the list, Time editors and correspondents nominated their top picks, which the report’s authors evaluated based on originality, creativity, efficacy, ambition and impact.
Much like last year’s list, which included fashion products related to the coronavirus and sustainability, this year’s roundup also addressed some of the year’s most pressing issues facing the industry. From made-to-order jeans to indigo made of bacteria, this year’s innovations are a sign of the times.
Formerly known as Tinctorium, biotechnology company Huue made headlines when it debuted indigo derived from lab-grown bacteria in 2019. Though indigo dye is naturally derived from a plant, that’s not the case for most of today’s indigo pigment, which is often chemically synthesized and must undergo a chemical reaction that pumps harmful corrosive salt into the world’s waterways. Huue’s development skirts the use of chemicals and instead engineers bacteria to turn natural sugars into indigo dye by mimicking how enzymes in plants create colors. This September, the company partnered with Ginkgo Bioworks Inc. to use its cell programming platform to ramp up and scale production of the sustainable indigo dye.
Falling in line with the industry’s circularity push, robotics and digital apparel company Unspun unveiled its most sustainable jeans at the beginning of the year, offering made-to-order denim that’s both sustainable and custom-fit and therefore reduces the need for returns. Later, it debuted Vega-1, its 3D-weaving technology that it plans to deploy on a global scale, giving brands the ability to bring goods to market quickly and efficiently. Using the industry-disrupting machine, it takes just 10 minutes for the brand to produce a custom pair of jeans. The brand notes that the first sewing machine was invented in the 1800s, and this could be the machine that finally replaces it.
First hitting the scene as a socks brand, and then venturing into T-shirts, Bombas expanded into underwear in 2021 and checked off some important boxes in the process: The new product is size-inclusive, dual-gender, and community-focused. Since the brand’s launch in 2013, it has been focused on giving back to the homeless population, and as of August 2021, its donations have passed 50 million. Community service aside, it’s the underwear’s design elements like a diagonal fly for easy access, a tag-free structure and soft, minimal seams that earned it a spot on Time’s list. Men’s and women’s underwear feature a unique blend of smooth cotton and modal for softness and sustainability.
In May, the brand known for its 3D-knitted women’s flats and sneakers expanded into men’s, debuting two versatile styles that meet at the intersection of sustainable and functional. The company introduced a pair of men’s sneakers and driving loafers, the latter of which was featured in Time’s list. Rothy’s driving loafers feature recycled materials and significantly reduce waste by using its signature high-tech knitting process that it says eliminates 30 percent of the waste that would normally end up on a cutting-room floor. As of March, the company has repurposed nearly 100 million plastic bottles and 100 tons of ocean-bound marine plastic in the making of its footwear. It aims to be waste-free by 2023.
Nike, in partnership with its adaptive footwear partner Handsfree Labs, debuted the Go FlyEase sneaker in February to make it easier for differently abled people to put on their shoes. Using a patent-pending, hinged design wherein the shoe closes around the wearer’s foot, the shoe especially appeals to those with arthritis, flexibility challenges and more. The sneaker debuted with a trio of colorways including a springy pastel edition, plus a black shoe with cobalt and cherry accents and a version that mixes purple, teal, black, lava, seafoam and navy. While the innovation is specifically tailored to the differently abled, Nike noted that the design is convenient for everyone.
Allbirds and Adidas
Listed as a special mention, the Futurecraft.Footprint running shoe is the brainchild of footwear labels Allbirds and Adidas, which dropped their open source, low-carbon collaboration in May of this year. The shoe carries a carbon footprint of just 2.94 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), making it the performance shoe with the lowest carbon emissions on the market. Though it misses the two-kilogram target they had aimed for, the total equates to a 63 percent reduction compared to the Adizero RC3, the running shoe the brands used as a starting point for their work.
A thin, strong, lightweight and ultra-heat-conducive material, Graphene earned researchers the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010—and a new innovation centered on the material has also earned it a “special mention” on this year’s Time’s list. In October, Reebok debuted its Thermowarm + Graphene winter garment collection, an active outerwear line designed for use in sport. The collection spans men’s and women’s hoodies, joggers, jackets and more and helps wearers stay warmer in cold temperatures without sacrificing performance, function or style. Reebok’s testing showed that graphene helped retain between 8 and 15 percent more heat than areas without it, signaling a major innovation for heat-retaining outerwear.