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Beyond T-Shirts and Denim: Innovation Transforms Cotton at Fashion Weeks Around the Globe

This September, brands, retailers, manufacturers and consumers alike looked to the runways of New York, London, Milan and Paris to see the manifestation of emerging trends defining the future of fashion. Designers are, of course, introducing vibrant new colors, original patterns and surprising cuts heading into the SS20 season, but they’re also reimagining familiar fabrics. One in particular is cotton. Once seen as a casual (even unassuming) classic, cotton is a staple material that is now taking on a new life in high fashion.

Cotton has “grown up” and evolved from tried-and-true classic staples like T-shirts and denim jeans. The cotton garments now seen on runways range from silky-smooth coral crochet dresses, ethereal peach gowns studded with futuristic 3D flowers and black-and-white poplin turned into avant-garde jumpsuits. It’s this innovation in design that is transforming cotton in inspiring ways.

Fern Mallis, the creator of New York Fashion Week and the former executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), recognizes this shift in perception—and creative possibilities—of cotton among fashion’s biggest players.

“If you’re really clever and creative you can do everything with cotton,” Mallis said. “You know, people are always redefining cotton and reinventing the way it’s used. It’s a fiber that everybody wants to wear, so everybody’s working to make it useful in many different ways beyond T-shirts and jeans. I’m seeing cotton used in ways I didn’t think were possible.”

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As a premier fixture on the global fashion scene for the past three decades, Mallis has seemingly seen it “all” in fashion, so her reaction of both excitement and surprise at how cotton is being used is certainly a testament to the fact that innovation is indeed infiltrating cotton design and influencing fashion’s biggest stages.

One effort helping pioneer this trend toward cotton in high fashion is the Supima Design Competition. The fashion show was originally created to introduce the next generation of designers to the fashion industry, challenging them to create a collection with U.S. cotton—specifically Supima blend cotton. It’s now held every season at NYFW and has continually pushed the boundaries of what clothes can be when made with cotton.

At a recent show, designers used U.S. cotton in such unexpected ways that the garments displayed were actually mistaken for silk, suede and synthetic fibers.

Designers dyed cotton in the sun, scalloped it, shredded it and turned it into velvet, while one particular designer even interlocked cotton fabric without traditional sewing so that the garment could be taken apart and the pieces could be reconstructed into a whole new style, which she likened to playing with Legos.

Like the Supima Design Competition, design schools and institutes worldwide are also seeing cotton resonate with the designers enrolled in their programs. The chair of the Fashion Design Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Eileen Karp, said innovation with cotton is starting with the myriad ways up-and-coming designers are tapping into cotton in the classrooms—particularly from a sustainability standpoint.

“We use cotton a lot—we start in the first semester and use it for draping classes as well as sewing, then we move into more advanced semesters, and our students experiment all the time with sustainable applications and sustainable types of dyeing,” Karp said.

She added that the Fashion Design Department students also work in collaboration with the FIT Textile Development and Marketing Department (TDM) on a denim capstone project in which they learn the whole process of developing an all-cotton collection, starting with a visit to one of the 18,600 family cotton farms in the United States.

Beyond the classroom and the catwalk, COTTON USA™ also propels the support for U.S. cotton, specifically throughout the global supply chain with brands and retailers and mills and manufacturers. COTTON USA’s various initiatives, including forums, events and research collectively demonstrate the opportunities that U.S. cotton’s quality and sustainability present to the worldwide textile industry.

Inspiring the fashion industry to explore how U.S. cotton can be used in so many different ways can impact the clothing that brands create and retailers will sell, as well as the ways in which consumers view cotton clothing. 

The beautiful thing about cotton is that it will always be an effortless fabric made from a natural fiber that was grown from a plant, that’s able to morph into a garment that has the performance capabilities of synthetic fibers, or the artistic elements of haute couture.


COTTON USA™ promotes U.S. cotton around the world. We’re dedicated to spreading the message of how our family farmers are employing innovative precision agriculture techniques for a kinder, greener world. It’s just one reason why COTTON USA is the Cotton the World Trusts. Look closer at COTTON USA. We think you’ll like what you see. CCI is an equal opportunity employer and provider. Click here to learn more.