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Outerwear Sector Works to Achieve a Balance of Function and Fashion

Outerwear has been a key category for fabric and fiber innovation in recent years, and the call for high performance and special attributes for participants and spectators continues to gain momentum.

From thermo-regulating fibers and additives that are lighter weight or meet extreme conditions, to water-repellent and durable materials, textile firms and apparel brands are teaming up for next generation gear at a fast pace.

The cool factor that allows a brand to tell a story by boasting about the special characteristics of their clothing is important, as is the sustainability of the materials. But in developing products, these companies stress that they also keep an eye on the aesthetic of the styling, so that fashion doesn’t lose out to function.

“The fashion brands have turned their attention to performance textiles, while the outdoor brands focus on the product and performance of the textile first and then also want to make sure that the aesthetic and the styling meets a fashion requirement and is friendly to the consumer in appearance,” David Parkes, founder and CEO of Concept III Textiles, said.

Concept III, Parkes noted, has fashion and performance-oriented brands as clients and there is a fair amount of crossover of the fabrics they purchase. On the other hand, while he doesn’t think fashion brands have given away aesthetics by using performance fibers, it can work the other way around, too.

“I was concerned a few years ago that the outdoor brands would become so strong that they were going to see a real opportunity in the fashion business,” Parkes said. “But I think they have maintained the image that the product comes first.”

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Karin Mueller, global senior vice president of marketing at Noble Biomaterials, a specialist in odor elimination and smart fabric solutions, said, “Consumers today want to buy technical garments that are functional, while making them look and feel good. They don’t want to compromise performance or fashion.”

Recent rollouts reflect the collaborative effort in the industry and the focus on blending performance and style.

Outdoor brand Flylow Gear has introduced Stormproof/Breathable OmniBloq on four of its best-selling winter designs. Developed by Bolger & O’Hearn Specialty Chemicals, OmniBloq represents a new standard in durable water repellence for outdoor gear. Applied to fabric at the mill, OmniBloq delivers highly durable, stormproof water repellence that doesn’t compromise fabric hand, garment design, wearer comfort or breathability.

“We’re stoked to be the first winter sport brand to use OmniBloq DWR durable water repellent and we specifically chose to use it on pieces that are favorites of some the hardest skiing men and women on the mountain,” said Flylow president Dan Abrams. “Using a technology that enables a skier to be ‘Stormproof’ and enjoy any weather condition is right on the bullseye for Flylow.”

Looking to PrimaLoft, the company has partnered with five outdoor brands to introduce PrimaLoft Bio, a recycled, biodegradable synthetic apparel insulation and performance fabric. In tandem with Helly Hansen, Houdini, L.L.Bean, Norrøna and Vaude, apparel featuring PrimaLoft Bio will bow at retail for Fall 2020.

“We’ve collaborated with a community of brands that share our common sustainability values and goals,” PrimaLoft president and CEO Mike Joyce said. “Together, we are establishing a new industry standard for environmentally conscious product design, sustainability best practices and transparency, to meet consumer demand.”

Helly Hansen, known for its performance ski and sailing apparel and premium workwear, will launch products with PrimaLoft Bio in North America and Europe.

“PrimaLoft Bio enables us to continue pushing our sustainability efforts forward without sacrificing the performance we’ve come to expect from their best in class technologies,” Philip Tavell, category managing director for Helly Hansen, said.

Polartec recently introduced Polartec Power Air, the pioneering fabric technology engineered to reduce fiber shedding by encapsulating lofted fibers within a multilayer, continuous yarn fabric construction. Swedish sportswear brand Houdini adopted the fabric in its Power Air Houdi, which was made available to consumers Jan. 31. Polartec’s new Neoshell is the nest stage in waterproof fabric technology. NeoShell provides the strength and durability of a weather protective fabric, while still allowing dynamic air exchange and comfortable full range of motion by releasing heat and perspiration with a continuous air exchange that enhances natural thermo-regulation, giving high protection and comfort.

The complementing of fashion and function goes beyond outerwear into activewear and even jeanswear, executives noted.

Catherine Anderson-Jones, Cordura’s brand marketing communications manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said there are many brands that have historically been called sport brands that are looking for technical fibers and fabrics because it’s their heritage, and are putting it into garments that are more in the lifestyle, streetwear end of the market.

“I expect there are more of those consumers that are going to buy their goods than are going to climb to the top of the mountain,” Anderson-Jones said of brands buying Cordura’s fabrics.

The mills Cordura works with around the world “are coming to us with innovation in ways we might not have always considered in the past,” Anderson-Jones said. This includes blending fibers in a variety of ways, but in keeping with Cordura’s focus and commitment to durability and performance attributes.

“We’ve seen an awful lot of interest in functional and technical in high-end looks and feel in knit products,” she said.

Brands also want to be able to tell a story with the fibers and fabrics to show the added value being put into it, Anderson-Jones noted. For example, thermo-regulation, such as found in fibers that include Coolmax and 37.5 temperature regulating technology, as well as sustainable elements like recycled polyester, biodegradable or organic cotton, add value to the brand’s image and performance level.

But the added value does come at a price.

“You’ve got brands that will pay for the higher price because they want to be the first in the market with the new innovation,” Anderson-Jones said. “There are other brands that spend time re-engineering the product to get it to the price that may be more mass market. In the end, the price is what the brands think they can carry.”

Sharing Unifi’s perspective, Meredith Boyd, vice president of brand sales at Unifi Inc., said, “We invest time working across different end uses and applications and we understand that there are sometimes properties that one area will desire over another. While we never want a customer to have to compromise, we are transparent about opportunities or challenges with a filament count selection or the impact of choosing a certain denier or functional characteristic.”

For Lenzing, activewear’s influence has fueled interest for its added value Tencel cellulosic fiber, with companies using it in blends with polyester and stretch fabrics.

“Most brands are looking for performance characteristics. The question is at what price,” Tricia Carey, director of global business development for denim at Lenzing, said. “The research that goes into technical fabrics makes it costs more. The supply chain has taken the challenge on and in many cases succeeded in combining performance and fashion in fabrics.”

The difficulty, she said, often lies in explaining the benefits of a blended fabric with special characteristics to a buyer and having it adopted into a collection. Lenzing has had a series of collaborative fabrics introduced in recent years to that effect, Carey noted.

“The denim market gets it,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of success in merging fashion and function in denim.”