Over the course of the past decade, activewear has become a mainstream fashion staple. And amid a global pandemic that has seen many working remotely, consumers are clinging even more ardently to their leggings and sports bras.
Part of the category’s meteoric rise stemmed from its relaxed, comfortable nature. But truly sporty shoppers are also looking for performance capabilities, and brands have delivered in spades. Moisture-wicking, antimicrobial, fast-drying and weatherproof fabrics are quickly becoming table stakes. Still, few consumers have examined the measures that brands are taking to bring these features to market.
Spoiler alert: in most cases, activewear is imbued with its most desirable qualities by being bathed in a slew of chemicals, including non-renewable polymers made from fossil fuels. Little is known about the impact these compounds have on the human body, but it is clear that through repeated washing, the coatings slough off and make their way into waterways and oceans.
The discussion surrounding material coatings and their impacts has been percolating throughout the active and outdoor space for some time. And on Monday, activewear brand Gentrue became the first label to launch using an all-natural silk technology developed by green chemistry company Evolved By Nature that replaces chemicals entirely.
“What most people don’t know is that the silk fiber is nature’s form of plastic,” Greg Altman, Evolved’s co-founder, told Sourcing Journal.
The entrepreneur, who earned a PhD in biotechnology engineering, explained that silk, which comes, of course, from mulberry silkworm cocoons, is made from an organic monomer protein called fibroin. Unlike other polymers, the natural proteins in silk can be dissolved simply using hot salt water, which disrupts their bonding and renders them into a liquid state. When the salt is removed from the concoction, the remaining clear substance is what Evolved calls “activated silk,” which is used to coat widely used activewear fabrics like nylon. The coating gives products the ability to wick away moisture and creates a unique cooling sensation when worn, Altman said. Testing occurs at the company’s headquarters in Boston, while silk cocoons are imported from farmers in Japan. Each finished garment coated with the technology contains about two cocoons’ worth of silk, he said.
Gentrue, a women’s performance apparel brand founded by Oni Kai Auer, debuted its first collection this week, showcasing leggings, bras, tanks, biker shorts and a rash guard in sizes ranging from XS-4X on its direct-to-consumer site. The company’s product testing revealed that activated silk products demonstrated a 71 percent improvement in sweat-wicking performance, absorbing moisture and drying nearly 39 percent faster than chemically treated activewear styles already on the market. Gentrue is the first brand to release products using activated silk, though the technology has garnered interest from industry stalwarts like Chanel, which backed Evolved’s research in 2019.
“I knew within minutes that this was something special—something that could alter the way in which the apparel industry did things from here on out,” Auer told Sourcing Journal, adding that she became determined to incorporate the technology into her introductory line.
Gentrue’s performance staples are made from a “soft, spongy, double knit Nylon interlock,” as well as a lightweight, buttery jersey with smoothing and performance capabilities. “Our choice of base fabrics was a challenging but important one,” she said, as the brand sought to prove to consumers that high-quality performance garb could be made without toxic finishing chemicals. “Man-made fibers presented that opportunity,” she said, though the brand has explored recycled fabrics and continues to test other options.
According to Altman, one of activated silk’s greatest strengths is that it can be easily incorporated into companies’ existing supply chains, as the coating process is nearly foolproof, and something that experienced mills would have little trouble facilitating. Gentrue’s fabrics and products, for example, are manufactured in Vietnam, and “the technology is applied after dying and relaxing of the fabric, and prior to the tenter frame process,” Auer said.
Evolved’s activated silk tech is specifically formulated to bond with polyester fibers, Altman said, though the company is also looking to re-tool its formula to adhere to natural fibers like cotton. Evolved is also working to develop a process that would coat fibers, rather than finished fabrics, embedding the activated silk technology even deeper into garments so that the effects last through the item’s lifetime. As it stands, activated silk’s properties last through “many wash cycles,” Altman said—though it is still a coating, he added, and its properties will diminish over time.