High Style Goes High Tech

Well-dressed consumers are snapping up stain-free, nonwrinkle suits and shirts, and fashion brands see growth opportunities in enhanced clothing

High tech and high fashion rarely coincide. Tech-infused apparel—with advanced features such as moisture wicking—is much more likely to hang on racks at sports stores (think Patagonia or REI) than Saks Fifth Avenue (SKS).

And it's no accident that the most resilient technology, such as weatherproof Gore-Tex and sweatproof Coolmax, is generally associated with conquering the great outdoors, not prowling the catwalk. Recently, however, technology-toughened luxury apparel is increasingly offered by high-end retailers. Style-conscious customers are starting to snap it up, lured by promises of nanotech-enabled, nonwrinkle suits and stain-proofed fibers that result in lower dry-cleaning bills. High-tech, high-end clothes are quickly becoming a retail niche with promising revenues.

In the past 18 months, fashionable brands such as Hugo Boss, René Lezard, and Perry Ellis have taken timid first steps toward incorporating high-performance features—from spill and stain resistance to wrinkle defiance—into their upscale clothing lines. Brooks Brothers and Nordstrom (JWN) also now both sell work clothes—elegant suits, ties, and dress shirts—enhanced by high-tech treatments that were once exclusively reserved for so-called performance wear.

Performance Features

Traditional performance wear has long made profitable use of the high-tech fabrics capable of withstanding all manner of physical derision, with practical applications in outdoor and sporting apparel. Malden Mills Industries, the small Massachusetts company behind the synthetic fleece Polartec, has created a robust brand that plays well to outdoor enthusiasts and the U.S. military alike. The latter awarded the company a $15 million contract in January. But retailers are hoping that active, fashion-forward consumers will also bite. Uniqlo, the trendy Japanese casual-clothing brand that opened a chic U.S. flagship in November, has just debuted a technology-packed line of performance wear aimed at fitness junkies (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/13/06, "Uniqlo, Brand of the Rising Sun").

Only recently have technical breakthroughs allowed casual and work wear to adopt some of those sophisticated, resistant properties while retaining the feel and comfort of regular fabrics, from silk to cotton. Such advancements in fashion materials include micro-weaving and nanotech that alters the chemical properties of fabrics.

Brooks Brothers' stain-resistant ties, for example, are treated with a proprietary chemical formula that acts as an ultra-thin shield, wrapping around the individual fibers of the fabric to make it impervious to fluids and stains. Unlike conventional, protective coatings used across the apparel industry that sit on top of the fabric, the chemical cannot wash off over time. The ties cost between $60 and $70 each.

The way spilled wine and pasta sauce bead off the ties is reminiscent of how mud and rain slip off the surface of outdoor gear made with Gore-Tex. But to the touch, the ties still feel like regular silk rather than synthetic sportswear. Hugo Boss Orange Label shirts, meanwhile, cost considerably more than the ties, upwards of $125 apiece, but have a similar treatment applied to resist spills.

Sales Growth

Though brands such as Brooks Brothers and Hugo Boss are experimenting with limited offerings, technology-enhanced clothing can be a potentially lucrative point of differentiation in a crowded fashion market. "Companies are starting to realize that a brand isn't enough, an image isn't enough," says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at market researcher NPD Group. "There's not enough separation in the industry, and technology can be a way to distinguish oneself."

That could prove to be the case, as consumers are increasingly buying stylish everyday and work clothes with tech advancements built in.

According to a study released by the NPD Group last fall, 58% of men and 33% of women have bought clothing with wrinkle-resistant fabric. What's more, one in four men has purchased clothes that contain wicking features and 37% have bought into stain resistance.

Still, although high-style, high-performance business wear only makes up a small percentage of the overall apparel market, sales have grown significantly in less than a decade. Of the $55 billion in U.S. menswear sales in 2006, about $8.8 billion, or 16%, was of garments with some type of technological product enhancement, whether wrinkle free or stain resistant. That percentage has nearly doubled since 2000. The share of women's sales was much smaller, about $2.1 billion, or 2%, of the $105 billion total annual market. Cohen says women still largely shop for style and image first, and are less prone to buy into features.

Pharma-Like R&D

Those numbers could change drastically in less than five years, though. NPD predicts that up to 50% of menswear will incorporate high-performance features by 2010 and that womenswear will catch up by 2012 or 2013, catapulting potential sales to between $25 billion and $50 billion annually. Some, like Cohen, see the gender clothing gap slowly closing and say that, once an idea sticks, adoption rates for trends in womenswear are much quicker than in men's. "In the fashion industry, success brings more success," Cohen says. "There's nothing greater than copying a good idea, and once some of these companies start to see results, everything will change."

DuPont (DD), which makes Teflon, now has divisions focused on manufacturing high-technology apparel incorporating the sturdy substance, but few big-brand companies are jumping on the bandwagon…yet.

But comparing high-tech fashion to the pharmaceuticals industry, Cohen says there are dozens of small outfits, labs, and even individual inventors working on advancements that are likely to be acquired. One company that's singularly focused on extolling the virtues of technology to big-name brands is Emeryville (Calif.)-based Nano-Tex. The company, part of International Textile Group, uses nanotechnological manufacturing processes to produce wrinkle-free and stain-resistant fabrics.

Making Apparel Better

Nano-Tex sells the technology to major brand names, who then make everything from high-performance dress pants, shirts, and ties to bed sheets. Brands that have rolled out products based on Nano-Tex technology include Eddie Bauer, Gap (GPS), L.L. Bean, Marks & Spencer, and JoS. A. Bank (JOSB), among many others.

Nanotechnology is the science of fabrication at the molecular level. Applied to materials, nanotech innovations can endow products with unique properties, from uncharacteristic strength to stubborn stain resistance. "Talking about nanotech as a market is a bit of a misnomer," says Michael Holman, a senior analyst with the New York-based market research firm Lux Research. "It's not a market so much as an enabling technology. What we're seeing now is companies discovering how to make existing products better."

Nano-Tex has made a name for itself as a consultant to buyers, advising how to best market features and benefits endowed to products by the nanotech inside. "Nano-Tex is really one of the first companies to understand that an application has to be easy to adopt," says Holman.

Wait and See?

To that end, Nano-Tex executives work to translate often-complex science into easily digestible bullet points destined for the hangtags that communicate the benefits of enhanced apparel. "Consumers are all about the benefits," says Renee Hultin, the company's executive vice-president of sales. "They don't care about how we assemble the polymers, they care about features and performance."

Still, high-tech clothing, nano or otherwise, has a long way to go before it becomes a mainstay of haute couture. At least one adventurous designer familiar to fashionistas, Yeohlee Teng, incorporated spill-resistant technology into the silk and linen garments in her Spring, 2006, collection during New York's Fashion Week more than a year ago. But that test run was exceptional. Hultin says, "Most high-end makers have taken a 'wait and see' attitude."

And yet, if consumers warm to tech-wrought features in high-style clothes, heavy-duty wear may be jumping from the treadmill to the runway fast enough to qualify as a bona fide fashion trend.

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