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Performance-Driven Fabrics Deserve a Fashionable Makeover

Fashion brands are developing activewear lines left and right. So why aren't more designers using high-tech fabrics to make regular clothes work better?

As the owner of a New York-based design consultancy, it was Manuela Fassbender’s job to keep up with industry trends. She took serious notice when fashion brands started launching activewear collections, but she thought there was even more potential in making regular clothes out of techy fabrics. “I wanted to bridge the gap,” Fassbender says. “To bring performance-driven fabric into a stylish menswear brand.”

And with that, Fassbender developed Tahaanga. Her first product is a cotton-blend dress shirt that she claims is the fastest-drying on the market. It also wicks moisture, eliminates odor and is wrinkle resistant. Shirts like these could change things for guys who bike or skateboard to work -- or for guys who are just generally sweaty. About a month ago, Fassbender launched a Kickstarter to produce the shirt, and has already surpassed her $30,000 fundraising goal. “This is just the beginning,” she says.

While Fassbender believes her fabric blend is the most sophisticated out there, she also knows she’s not the first to market. Ministry of Supply started developing a button-up shirt with similar properties in 2010, and launched it on Kickstarter in 2012. “In many ways, it’s about work-life integration,” says founder and CEO Gihan Amarasiriwardena. “Clothing was preventing us from moving fluidly from home to the office to after work. Performance materials let you do it with ease.” The Boston-based menswear brand famously raised almost $430,000 on Kickstarter--$400,000 more than its goal. Today, Ministry of Supply includes three different shirt styles, a waterproof jacket, vest, merino-blend sweaters and even socks, all made with performance-driven materials. So far, the company has raised $4 million in venture capital funding. “We think, in many ways, it’s a very unique time for performance to come into the mainstream,” Amarasiriwardena says.

Performance-driven fashion makes a lot of sense. In 2012, about 786,000 Americans biked to work, a 60 percent increase from 2000, according to the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey. But while the active-menswear category is filling out nicely, technical womenswear is a narrower market. Sure, women's ready-to-wear designers often use technical fabrics to create a certain effect. Few, however, are looking to actually affect anything.

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Brooklyn-based Suzanne Rae is one womenswear designer actively promoting her use of technical fabrics as functional. “I want to play with the idea of improving daily performance,” Rae says. “I want my clothes to be wearable, practical and not overly intimidating." For her spring 2014 collection, Rae used a deadstock neoprene. For spring 2015, she found a fabric called Newlife, a polyester yarn made out of recycled plastic bottles. (Max Mara has also used Newlife in its Weekend collection.) “It’s more breathable and less stiff than neoprene,” she says. “That was a nice discovery.”

To be sure, there are plenty of interesting fabrics out there. Oritz Industry, a Los Angeles-based, tech-driven fashion brand that caters to both men and women, uses Dupont’s Sorona, a fiber partially made out of renewable plant-based ingredients. (Founder Claire Oritz has worked as a creative director at Nike and Under Armour, so while her dresses, blazers and other separates are work-appropriate, she has plenty of experience in activewear.) Peter Szanto, North American end-use marketing manager for Sorona, says designers like it for its stretch -- “it has great recovery” -- but also because it can improve the performance of natural textiles. Weaving Sorona into a cotton shirt, for instance, could render it wrinkle free. “The consumer is driven by functionality,” he says.

In many ways, high-fashion brands use performance-driven materials on the regular. Remember that cotton and wool are some of the most effective fabrics around. But most designers still view techy fabrics as a novelty. Will that ever change? As the worlds of fashion and activewear become further enmeshed, it's not hard to imagine.