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Synthetic Fibers Trump the Runway

Synthetics are back. After years of escalating cotton use, with a focus on natural materials and classic cuts, designers are jumping back to versatile, economical, manmade fabric. It’s the new frontier of fashion, according to the Wall Street Journal, and scientific fabrics are letting designers do things that they’ve never done before.

Forget cashmere and silk. Polyester, neoprene, nylon, polyamide and other materials are much more versatile in the cutting room. To pull off the latest designs and keep clothes fresh, the new materials are necessary, say designers.

“A cotton shirt is a cotton shirt, but the really cool fabrics have something extra in them,” says Johnny Talbot, co-designer of Talbot-Runhof, a Munich-based label that makes red-carpet gowns.

Designers are using the fabrics to produce a look called “scuba chic,” involving bonding neoprene to other fabrics to produce a thick, boxy look. The material, more commonly used in rough-and-ready underwater applications, has had a huge influence on design in the last two seasons.

Alexander Wang used mohair and neoprene to create a stiff, voluminous look in his fall collection. A more conventional method using double-thick mohair would have produced clothes that were virtually unbearable due to their heat, but the neoprene worked.

Polyester has a bad name in fashion, conjuring images of leisure suits and golf pants. But a lot has changed in synthetic fiber technology in the last thirty years. The fibers, made from oil and plant based plastics, are thinner and more versatile, as spinning and extrusion techniques have improved. Some have moisture wicking or anti-bacterial properties, and even purists have accepted blended long underwear as a substitute for pure cotton.

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Despite the new tech, synthetics’ reputation is still in the toilet. Designers use the term “technical fabrics,” to avoid the stigma. Increasingly though, consumers (and even product testers) can’t tell the difference, as seen in the recent Nordstrom’s faux fur scandal, where they were fined for selling real fur labeled as fake fur.

All but the crunchiest designers are using these materials, but a few have been making a name for themselves from them. Swiss label Akris uses synthetic fabrics to produce clothes with good skin feel, wind and water resistance, and the ability to come out of suitcases wrinkle free – a must have for their target audience of female executives. Designer Albert Kriemler says, “We use fabrics that are designed to answer to the designers of women who are constantly traveling.”

Polyester has also started to lose its sheen. Because new fibers are thinner, they can be spun into yarn with a silky feel and more natural luster, according to Margaret Frey, a Cornell University professor of fiber science and apparel design.

The special sauce is in finishing the fabric, with more refined finishing processes and dyes giving the fiber more natural feel, drape, and comfort.

The processes to create the clothes can hearken to the trendy science based gastro-fare, where creams are whipped with nitrogen and fats are jelled. To create a sheer white Talbot-Runhof dress, base fabric was embroidered with sequins and then sewn to a filter screen fabric more commonly used in kidney dialysis. The whole thing was then bathed in a liquid that dissolved the base, leaving only the sequins and the filter.

The filter is very light and extremely strong, and it can be patterned with an inject printer or sprayed with color to produce sheen and texture.

There’s a cost tradeoff with these new fashion fibers and techniques though, and the fancy Talbot-Runhof dress cost about $10,000. These fabrics often come from Japan and were bound for other uses than the runway. Another Talbot-Runhof favorite is a grid-like polymer used in the automobile industry as a support material. Its base plastic is used in high-impact applications. The edges are sharp and the material can be dangerous to work with, but it produces incredibly lightweight, diaphanous forms.

Getting this kind of technology off the runway and into retail will take some time, but more conventional synthetics have been hitting hard and getting good reviews from consumers and critics.