Fashion Forward

We’ve come a long way from the miracle of rayon. How new fabric technology is changing our duds.

If you were looking for a miracle fabric in 1940, DuPont had just the thing: rayon. Fashion’s Favorite, a promo film produced by the industrial giant, touted the synthetic fiber as a classic example of “better living through chemistry” and modestly proclaimed that rayon “makes life more luxurious, more beautiful, for everybody everywhere.”


That movie, which shows exactly how rayon is produced, would never happen in the secretive, intensely competitive apparel-manufacturing world of 2007. But otherwise, DuPont’s proclamations are remarkable for their prescience. The days are past when polyester was pooh-poohed: We’re living in a new golden age of miracle fabrics.

The boom began in performance apparel, where synthetics have scored a TKO over natural fabrics: Various forms of moisture-wicking polyester are predicted to outpace overall sportswear growth by a factor of two between now and 2012, according to industry researcher “I start every speech I give with, ‘Cotton is the enemy,'” says Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, whose company has played a key role in the ascension of performance synthetics. Among the edgy technologies in its arsenal: a nylon-polyester-Lycra combination. “It creates a push-pull dynamic,” Plank says. The polyester pulls moisture off your skin, and the nylon pushes it to the outside.

But cotton isn’t dead yet. The real push-pull may be between competing fabric realms. People want technical and natural fibers, sometimes in the same garment–and companies are enhancing fabrics with an array of coatings and laminates. Brooks Brothers’ line of 100% cotton no-iron shirts, treated with a proprietary process that keeps them wrinkle-free, comprises about 75% of the clothier’s shirt business. The company is also working on nanotechnologies–treatments to the actual molecules of the fibers, rather than the woven fabrics–that will give its natural textiles greater stain- and soil-release capabilities.

Bioengineering, though, holds the industry’s most tantalizing possibility. Plants would be genetically customized to imbue performance enhancements right into the natural fiber. “Up until now, genetically engineered cotton has mostly involved making the plant more disease-resistant and increasing yield,” says Brooks Brothers fabric specialist Douglas Shriver. “But what if you can genetically develop the actual cotton fiber to be, say, hollow in the middle, so it wicks moisture and transfers heat [to emulate a polar bear’s hair]? That’s probably five or six years away, but then you wouldn’t need the chemicals and processing.” In short: better living through biology.