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Are Specialty Fibers Worth Paying a Premium For?

Supima took a less-is-more approach to its spring ad campaign this year. Conceived by integrated branding agency Graj + Gustavsen and dubbed “Chosen By,” the first print ad appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of T: The New York Times Style Magazine and quietly broadcast a simple yet striking message: that Supima’s brand of American Pima cotton is cherry-picked by Lacoste for its iconic white polo shirt.

The two-page spread featured an artful portrait of the polo on one side and a small boll of extra-long staple Supima cotton on the other, captured by celebrated commercial photographer Anna Williams in a way that highlights the signature qualities of the premium fiber.

Elsewhere in the campaign, products from Supima’s other partner brands, including Brooks Brothers’ non-iron pinpoint Oxford shirt, sateen sheets from Barbara Barry and plush towels from The Breakers Palm Beach, convey a similar message. It’s all part of the nonprofit’s attempt to build awareness and appreciation for the fact that just 3 percent of the cotton grown in the U.S. can be classified as Supima.

That’s all well and good, but what’s the difference between Supima and generic cotton?

Firstly, conventionally grown cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop grown on the planet. By comparison, Supima (short for “superior Pima”) is grown in select areas of the West and Southwest U.S., almost exclusively on furrowed rows where growers can regulate irrigation and other inputs. The resulting American Pima features an extra-long staple — the longer the strand, the smoother the cotton — used for high quality textiles.

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But with high quality comes higher prices, and they start at the source. Production costs are more expensive due to extra management of the crop. Furthermore, Pima cotton is roller-ginned — a slower cultivation process that protects the fiber — not saw-ginned like upland cotton, which often leads to breakage and a less smooth strand.

So a manufacturer that’s making something out of Supima cotton is paying much more than they would if they worked with a generic fiber. Those prices in turn are passed along to the consumer who, according to Buxton Midyette, Supima’s vice president of marketing and promotions, is paying up to 30 percent more at retail for a Supima shirt versus a conventional cotton shirt. (That Lacoste polo, for instance, sets a shopper back $89.50.)

The question is: How do brands and retailers convince consumers that branded fibers are worth paying a premium for?

Jeffrey Silberman, chair and professor of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT) Textile Development and Marketing program, said it all comes down to marketing. “Fiber content doesn’t always drive sales,” he said, “but you don’t see a lot of ads that scream out polyester.” He added, “In order to get some sort of fiber image and message out there you have to have a certain amount of exposure to consumers.”

Midyette echoed this sentiment. “When you think about marketing for a premium fiber brand it’s really about telling the story, communicating the fiber’s benefits and helping the consumer to understand how these benefits can really enhance their lifestyle,” he said.

For Supima — which was honored with the Premium Fiber Brand of the Year nod at last year’s American Apparel & Footwear Association awards — that means associating the company with cutting-edge style nationally and internationally. The annual Supima Design Competition takes place each year in New York during the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Lincoln Center. Up-market advertising, like the “Chosen By” campaign, reinforces the fiber’s image. Currently, the windows of the Brooks Brothers flagship on Madison Avenue feature Supima cotton “clouds” while New York’s yellow cabs promote the longstanding Supima-Brooks Brothers collaboration both on taxi tops and Taxi TV.

“Our best partnerships are with brands that really focus on product quality,” Midyette continued. “If you just put a Supima product on the shelf without telling its story, it’s just going to look expensive.”

Tricia Carey, director of business development, denim, at Austrian fiber maker Lenzing, which produces Tencel and Modal, agreed. “Depending on the market segment, the consumer may pay a higher price [so] they need a good reason to pay more for a brand,” she said, noting that activewear featuring branded fibers is an easier sell because performance features, like odor resistance and moisture management, justify a higher price tag.

Molly Kremidas, marketing manager for Nilit America, producer of nylon 6.6 yarns, pointed out that most consumers know what Nike’s DriFit does because it’s been so well marketed. “Other brands are using moisture-wicking and antimicrobial fabrics, too, but if they’re not calling out those features to the extent that Nike does, the consumer won’t pay attention to the product,” she said.

Basically, there needs to be an element of legitimacy for consumers to believe the product is at the same level as Nike. “That could be the difference between customers choosing a name-brand running bra over a mass-market one, even if they’re a similar price and do the same thing,” she noted.

The same goes for justifying the higher price tag that comes with the likes of Supima, Tencel and Dupont’s Lycra products. Rival fibers (read: generic cotton or spandex) can supply a level of performance acceptable to the mass market at cheaper prices; authentic credentials, therefore, are critical to success.

With that being said, not everybody thinks branded fibers are all they’re cracked up to be. “Any Pima is better than regular cotton but Supima, the organization, claims that its brand of Pima is better than the rest,” said Deborah Young, program director and professor of fashion and textiles at Texas Woman’s University, noting that when consumers repeatedly hear about the benefits of one brand over another, they’re going to think it’s superior. She added, “It’s like any other branding, like pharmaceutical drugs. There aren’t that many differences between brand-name drugs and their generic counterparts.”

But branded fibers have an ace up their sleeve in that they also play into the conscious consumer movement, as shoppers increasingly seek supply chain transparency in their purchases and choose longevity over throwaway consumption.

Textile manufacturer Unifi developed Repreve — a polyester alternative made from post-industrial waste and used plastic bottles — to conserve natural resources and help brands design responsible and sustainable products.

Outdoor brands adopted the yarn first and today it’s used by companies ranging from The North Face and Patagonia, to Quiksilver and Volcom, to Ford.

“Unlike any other recycled fiber brands, Repreve contains a proprietary Fiberprint technology that allows Unifi to test and verify that Repreve is in a product and in the right amounts,” said Jay Hertwig, vice president of global branding at Unifi. “Products made with Repreve are also third-party tested and certified before the Repreve brand name can be used.”

Wool-filled apparel products are coming to the fore in the sports and outdoor arenas, too. “Brands are discovering that a lot of the attributes that synthetics are trying to mimic, like odor control, are naturally found in wool,” said Michelle Lee, the Woolmark Company’s director of the Americas.

In order to certify both garment quality and fiber origin, not to mention promote Australia’s woolgrowers to an international audience, the organization (owned by the nonprofit, Australian Wool Innovation) recently reviewed its Licensing Program and introduced a new specification for wool-filled products that allows for manufacturers to carry the Woolmark and Woolmark Blend logo on qualifying apparel.

Any product bearing those symbols indicates it contains wool that meets The Woolmark Company’s stringent quality standards and was sourced from growers that ensure sustainable farming practices and animal welfare. According to Lee, “People educated with that information will pay the premium.”

But as Supima’s Midyette said, it’s not enough to simply tag a product and call it a day. Selling specialty fibers requires a fundamental shift in marketing techniques. “It is no longer about a hangtag, but a compelling social media campaign and website,” Carey added.

Not to mention competent sales pitches to back them up. “Sales training is important and quality assurance is important,” Silberman said, noting that floor staff need to educate consumers about the fiber’s benefits, be they lightweight, breathable, durable, comfortable, long-lasting or all of the above. If they see that a garment is going to offer features that make them feel better, they’ll want to try it on. Once that hurdle is crossed, it will likely sell itself, regardless of the price tag.

And in some cases, there are specialty fibers to suit any budget. As Carey noted, “With savvy sourcing and supply chain partnerships retailers are offering incredible values.”

For instance, Japanese retailer Uniqlo has made Supima an integral part of its business in recent years, offering a range of shirts, tees, tops, tanks and camis in a kaleidoscope of colors for men and women for the pocket-friendly price of less than $30. Uniqlo is then raising awareness for ingredient brands and Supima is being introduced to a new group of consumers.

“Fiber people are great at talking about the technical aspects of their fibers and lengths, diameters and strength but the challenge for us is to translate those into consumer benefits and craft a message that helps them understand why this fiber is a better choice,” Midyette said.

Silberman agreed: “It’s about striking a chord with consumers.”