It’s a love match for Ralph Lauren and material science firm Natural Fiber Welding, which announced Thursday a sporting polo derived from what is being billed as the world’s first high-performance cotton fabric.
Debuting exclusively at the 2022 Australian Open Tennis Tournament in Melbourne, where Serbian star Novak Djokovic’s “will he play or not?” visa status is dominating headlines, the RLX Clarus comprises virgin and recycled cotton fibers that have been “enhanced” with attributes more commonly associated with petrochemical-based synthetics, including moisture wicking and quick drying. This has resulted, the companies said, in a material that performs similarly to polyester and nylon while maintaining cotton‘s signature comfort and breathability.
“Ralph Lauren is known for timelessness—and for more than 50 years being timeless has meant both leaning into our heritage and fostering pioneering innovation,” David Lauren, chief branding and innovation officer at Ralph Lauren, said in a statement. “With the introduction of the RLX Clarus polo shirt, we are using our most iconic product as a canvas to launch an industry-changing and scalable textile technology: a high-performance apparel product that is created with natural fibers for the first time. We’re proud to build on the brand’s legacy of signature and authentic style, reinvented for the future.”
The collared top is part of Ralph Lauren’s ongoing collaboration with Natural Fiber Welding, a company in which it acquired a minority stake in 2020. At the time, Ralph Lauren said it planned to leverage its investment to help scale Natural Fiber Welding’s Clarus platform, which employs green chemistry to “weld” the shorter fibers found in post-consumer cotton waste into longer fibers for spinning into high-performance natural yarns that can incorporate virgin cotton or other plant-based materials.
Ralph Lauren said it will also tap the startup’s expertise to expand its use of recycled cotton as it moves toward its goal of reducing its reliance on petrochemical-based materials and embracing zero-waste principles across its operations.
“We are thrilled to continue our partnership with Ralph Lauren,” said Luke Haverhals, CEO at Natural Fiber Welding. “Through this collaboration, we are paving the way for complete circularity with resulting materials that perform similarly to plastic-based synthetic fabrics. We are pioneering an entirely new system that simultaneously enables all-natural performance fabrics while reducing waste and eliminating the need for synthetic plastics.”
During the 2022 Australian Open Tournament, Ralph Lauren will host an exhibition tennis clinic with tennis legend Sam Groth and professional Australian football player—and ardent tennis fan—Josh Cavallo. Both Groth and Cavallo will wear the new RLX Calrus polo shirt during the clinic, the brand said, “demonstrating its superior performance qualities during the height of the Australian summer heat.”
Ralph Lauren will follow up the shirt’s launch with global distribution that includes additional styles and colors, as well as women’s apparel, in the coming weeks.
“I’ve been a longtime fan of Ralph Lauren—they’re a classic brand with incredible style and are always pushing boundaries to make really innovative, new products,” said Cavallo. “As a professional athlete who trains every day, it’s incredible to be able to wear a 100 percent cotton shirt that is stylish, has superior performance qualities and keeps me comfortable even on the hottest of days—all made with a sustainable spirit.”
This isn’t the only time Ralph Lauren is playing doubles with another company. The preppy staple is also working with chemical giant Dow to roll out and scale up Color on Demand, a multiphased set of technologies that seeks to deliver the world’s first scalable zero-wastewater cotton dyeing system.
“Traditional color dyeing is one of the most polluting practices in our industry and as a global brand, we recognized the need to create a scalable solution,” Halide Alagöz, chief product and sustainability officer at Ralph Lauren, said last March. “Color on Demand significantly reduces the environmental impact of dyeing cotton and as an added benefit, will enable us to better balance inventory and meet personalized consumer demands faster than ever before.”
Natural Fiber Welding, too, has more in store. A crossover with Patagonia is in the works, as is a team-up with German luxury auto maker BMW. In 2020, Allbirds poured in $2 million to add the manufacturer’s plant-based leather alternative to its suite of eco-friendly materials. Silicon Valley’s favorite shoemaker said that Mirium, which consists of a blend of vegetable oil, natural rubber and other bio-ingredients, could potentially provide a 95 percent reduction in carbon emissions over traditional cowhide.
“After reviewing many other technologies, we found Natural Fiber Welding to have the key combination of innovation, carbon reduction capability and scalability that we knew was critical for success in a leather alternative,” Claudia Richardson, senior manager of material innovation at Allbirds, told Sourcing Journal last February. “We’ve always wanted to eliminate petroleum from the fashion industry and we’ll only be able to do so if we find new processes and materials that can be replicated and repeated easily.”